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Inspiration and exasperation

The Gorki breathes life into "Hamletmaschine" (Apr 6-26), while the Volksbühne takes the fun out of sex with Albert Serra’s new play "Liberté" (Apr 7-8)

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Photo by Ute Langkafel

The Gorki breathes life into Hamletmaschine, while the Volksbühne takes the fun out of sex.

I had doubts when I heard Sebastian Nübling was directing Heiner Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine (photo) at the Maxim Gorki Theater. The production would be performed by the Exil Ensemble, seven actors from Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine who had fled their lands to find a creative home at the Gorki; it would integrate new texts written by Ayham Majid Agha, a Syrian actor in the ensemble. Müller’s fragmentary riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy, so open to interpretation that one of its best known directors, Robert Wilson, flat-out admitted he didn’t understand it, would now be reconfigured to focus on the Middle East, becoming more tendentious, narrower, smaller. And then those production posters showing clowns: it just seemed wrong.

But as it turns out, Agha’s textual interpolations blend surprisingly well with Müller’s script. In the original, a character calls himself “clown number two in the spring of communism,” providing the key to Nübling’s and Agha’s reconception of Hamletmaschine as a group of clowns born of the Arab Spring. These aren’t harmless clowns, either – think Chucky, not Bozo. The Middle Eastern contexts chime nicely with the original because Müller, too, alludes to events such as the crushed Hungarian uprising of 1956.

And some phrases’ meanings multiply here. “The ruins of Europe behind me” becomes more, not less, suggestive when uttered by an actor fleeing the Middle East. The multilingual nature of the play, spoken in German, Arabic, and English, provides an excuse to foreground the text visually: The surtitles aren’t discreetly projected into a corner but are magnified, beamed large as part of the stage environment. Even without Agha’s additions, however, Müller’s words effortlessly take on new life when spoken by the losers of the failed Arab Spring: An actress delivers Ophelia’s lines about smashing the tools of her captivity and setting fire to her prison and then seems to break character, exclaiming, “I love this text!” With the passion of this production, so do we.

Less passion is on display, ironically, in Albert Serra’s new play Liberté, which premiered last month at the Volksbühne. In it, a group of pre-French Revolution libertines have left France to arrive just outside of Berlin, where they hope to win the German court over to their decadent ways, formulating plans for the corruption of girls at a local convent or the import of sex slaves from Polynesia. Sadomasochism can be played for laughs or examined for its durably alluring psychological complexity, but Serra just makes it dull. Given his, shall we say, “leisurely paced” films, this shouldn’t be all too surprising, but a slow procession of quiet cinematic images can somehow generate more interest than a stage set lit so dimly that one often can’t figure out which actor is talking. The elaborate but monotone plotting of these sexual intrigues captivates the audience with all the erotic force of a store owner taking stock of pretzels. Even when characters finally start to get down and nasty, it’s hard to react with anything but a yawn: Not tonight, dear, I’m exhausted.

Die Hamletmaschine ★★★★ Apr 6, 26, 19:30 (with English surtitles), Maxim Gorki | Liberté ★ 1978/2018 Apr 7, 8, 19:30 (with English surtitles), Volksbühne