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Rebels take centre stage this January

This January, Berlin theatres are full of new pieces exploring the themes of alienation and isolation.

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Photo: Andi Weiland

Perhaps you’ve been feeling isolated and alienated in these times of lockdowns, social distancing and general Covid anxiety. If so, take heart: you’re not alone. The theatres are full of new pieces featuring loners, people raging against the machine and antiheroes. Possibly, that’s what drama is all about, and our situation could end up being fruitful for artists of all stamps and inclinations. Small comfort? Let’s see.

Nothing illustrates the outsider better than the monologue, and we’ve got two coming up this month, both at the Berliner Ensemble. The agonising search for identity is thematised in Mein Name sei Gantenbein (My Name is Gantenbein), by Swiss author Max Frisch, whose life was a quest for identity. The protagonist in Frisch’s novel tries on histories “like clothes”.

In this version, adapted for the stage by the Berlin Ensemble’s artistic director Oliver Reese, German actor Matthias Brandt returns to the stage for the first time in 20 years. Among other roles, he played the chief of the Prussian secret police, August Benda, in the internationally acclaimed series Babylon Berlin. Will his investigations into the psyche be successful? Let’s hope so, and that he doesn’t get blown up in the process.

Identity is also a feature in It’s Britney, Bitch!, by writer and director Lena Brasch and actor and Ensemble member Sina Martens. Taking up Britney Spears’s battle cry from “Gimme More”, Brasch and Martens are putting together a thoughtful yet entertaining production featuring one of pop’s most beloved and ridiculed icons (see interview).

Isolation and soul-searching inevitably follow a crisis, and the experience of war and its devastation and dis- placement haunt its survivors. Eine Zusammenfassung von allem, was war (A Summary of Everything That Was) presents work by Syrian writer and journalist Rasha Abbas in a multi-media performance by the Maxim Gorki Ensemble featuring media art, architecture and electronic music.

Raised in Damascus, forced into exile in Lebanon, the recipient of a residency visa in Stuttgart, Abbas expresses her experiences not only in reports, but in award-winning lyrical stories describing the ravages of civil war and the impressions and alienation of political asylum.

Meanwhile the opera Antikrist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin shows that the Romantic anti-hero isn’t always the figure of sympathy and admiration at centre stage, unless of course you’re a Satanist. In which case, look away now, because (spoiler alert) the main character here doesn’t come to a good end.

In this opera by Danish composer Rued Langgaard, created in 1921-1923 but not performed until 1980 due to repeated rejection and censorship, Lucifer pulls the Antichrist out of a pit, something like a Tolkien-esque Uruk-hai out of the mud, who then goes on a bleak, Everyman-like allegorical journey, with characters such as Vainglory, Despair (both tenors) and Lust (soprano) all sticking in their oar as the world goes to Perdition (baritone). It ends badly for the Antichrist, whom God allowed on to the Earth, and who then destroys him. It does beg the question of fairness on an existential scale. But the end-of-the-world atmosphere rather suits the times we live in.

To paraphrase a character in the Billy Wilder film One, Two, Three, our human situation is hopeless, but not serious. As part of their programme TT20 Epilogue, the Berliner Festspiele is bringing back a piece that premiered in 2019: Rimini Protokoll’s Chinchilla Arschloch, was-was. A theme that would be a slow-motion PC car-crash in the hands of many other artists is treated here with great humanity and humour by this fabulous company, which features “experts of the everyday” in its works.

This time, people with Tourette’s syndrome are amongst the performers. The audience come to experience and sympathise with their condition, and laugh with them through the dramatic situations engendered by it. If you missed it in 2019, don’t miss it this time.