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Peymann’s last bow

Artistic director Claus Peymann arrived to the Berliner Ensemble in 1999. Almost 20 years later and he says goodbye with Kleist's "Prinz Friedrich vom Hamborg". You can see it Mar 9, 23 and 30.

Image for Peymann’s last bow
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Berlin’s most famous theatre has the city’s least famous artistic director. He goes out not with a bang, but a whimper.

It’s the curtain call after artistic director Claus Peymann’s last premiere at the Berliner Ensemble. The 79-year-old comes out in an oversized suit and kneels down to his ensemble, stands up and takes his head in his hands. It’s hard to see whether these are honest tears or pantomime – he trots off stage, smiling. But wait. Have you heard of Claus Peymann? I didn’t think so.

The Berliner Ensemble has a great international reputation. You can thank its founder, luminary Bertolt Brecht, for that, or the American lighting designer-turned-auteur Robert Wilson. The same is not true of Peymann, the theatre’s artistic director for the last 18 years. He was a student activist and RAF member in the 1960s. As a theatre maker, he was early champion of his peers, now-canonical playwrights like Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhardt. As the artistic director of the Burgtheater, he railed against the stuffiness of Vienna’s theatre culture, making plenty of enemies along the way. Then, in 1999, he took over the financially hard-up and rudderless Berliner Ensemble. And now, somehow, he’s known for conventional stagings of the German high school syllabus’ greatest hits.

There’s been quite a bit of ink devoted to the changeover at the Volksbühne (guilty!). After all, replacing staunchly East German Frank Castorf with Anglophone European Chris Dercon is a ready-made metaphor for fights about gentrification, the legacy of the GDR and the future of Europe. But it’s harder to figure out what Frankfurt-based Oliver Reese’s Berliner Ensemble takeover is all about, given Peymann’s strange transition from avant-garde to old guard. Berliner Ensemble stalwarts, including Peymann and his team, might say that Berlin theatre critics are mean and modish. And it’s possible that they (we?) aren’t the target audience. Surely there are some who will miss Peymann: Kleist or Schiller lovers who want no tinkering with the poetry, digital non-natives repulsed by screens or gimmicks, those who remember a time before German theatre was “post-dramatic” (let alone post-postdramatic) and miss it. But for the rest, Peymann’s final premiere at the Berliner Ensemble, Kleist’s posthumous military-historical drama Prinz Friedrich vom Homburg, is dry as dust. A cough-counting, knuckle-cracking, leg-tapping, watch-checking evening.

Image for Peymann’s last bow
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Some real praise, though, can be extended to the real hero of the evening: a taut wire extending from below Achim Freyer’s steep, raked set across the stage, over the orchestra and up to the top rear of the second balcony. It glows a kind of neon blue-green. The wire is a tightrope, and at the end of the play, the eponymous Prinz vom Homburg ascends it as he did in the opening moments. Is he, as he was at first, dreaming? He’s been exonerated for his (accidental and victorious) defiance of orders, and it’s a triumphal image as he rises up into the sky. Then, boom! Fake blood flows out of his mouth and he buckles and falls, caught by his arms like a crucified rag doll. All set to the archly ironic (but maybe secretly sentimental) “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”.

Back to Claus Peymann’s curtain call. So much of this “end of an era!” rhetoric obscures these moments’ deep ambivalence. The Berliner Ensemble is not a museum, this piece is not a retrospective and Peymann is not, in fact, retiring – he’s slated to direct King Lear in Stuttgart next year. Philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote: “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” The catastrophe of Peymann’s Prince of Homburg is its mutedness and restraint – none of the booing “Peymann raus!” that marked his early career, nothing ventured and nothing gained. Maybe, once his Intendanz is over, he can crank the Cat Stevens up loud and start to make his crazy late-late works, the ones that will puzzle, dazzle and frustrate us: bloody, full-throated catastrophes.

Prinz Friedrich vom Homburg, Mar 9, 23, 30, 19:30 | Berliner Ensemble, Mitte