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Reports from a frenzied festival: Theatertreffen 2023

From parables of populism to the physical embodiment of solidarity, we review the frenzied and fascinating festival that was Theatertreffen 2023.

Photo: Susanne Hassler-Smith 

Something was manic in this year’s Theatertreffen.

Perhaps it’s just the festival format —theatre every night but Wednesdays for two weeks straight is frenzy-inducing. And it’s always an exciting selection: “ten remarkable productions” chosen from 461 productions in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Not to mention that this year there were not only the ten pieces chosen by the traditional jury, but also an additional ten “Treffens” selected by the festival’s new leadership, which took place before or after the traditional “remarkable productions.”

Strange, sprawling, antic energy

Photo: Isabel Machado Rios

Even the more formally conservative pieces were shot through with moments of strange, antic intensity.

Indeed, high-energy performances like Jana Shostak’s 1 Minute Scream where the artist screamed for one minute as a kind of literalised reminder of activists’ struggle to be heard, and Anna Steller’s Obdicia | Bounces (reflections) where Steller, clothed in Ukrainian colours, danced for 30 minutes in the antechamber and patio of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, her sweat an attempt to make physically visible the effort involved in supporting the people of Ukraine, suggested that traditional theatrical space couldn’t quite contain this iteration of the festival’s interests.

Even the more formally conservative pieces, such as Theater Basel’s staging of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or Schauspielhaus Bochum’s production of Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorki, were shot through with moments of strange, antic intensity.

One piece that channeled the sprawling energy of the festival was The Bus to Dachau. This ambitious co-production of De Warme Winkel and Schauspielhaus Bochum presents a series of situations that could be ridiculous if they were not so terrible.

The first is the case of the Dutch political prisoners at Dachau, whose journey home was hindered rather than helped by the authorities: first the prisoners were simply left in the camp before they were placed in quarantine upon their return to their home country. The play presents the filming of a screenplay about this event from the 90s, written by the father of De Warme Winkel member, Ward Weemhoff—interest in which was somewhat gazumped by the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Using face filters to transform its actors performing harrowing scenes of Dachau into Disneyfied princes and princesses and project them before the audience, the play worries that Spielberg-like productions will turn the Holocaust into a kind of Trojan War: history will turn into myth, and a smoothed-over fiction will prevail over the texture of lived experience.

The best of the Treffens

Photo: Oliver Strömer

Where The Bus to Dachau anxiously seeks a theatrical vocabulary to adequately reckon with the past, the performances that made up the “Treffens,” wrestled with the urgent question of how to represent the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Putinprozess suggested that its engagement was a kind of surfing on history. Wearing wetsuits, the three actors in this Ukranian-German ensemble from Theater der Keller, Cologne strike surfing poses as they transition from the autobiographical anecdotes to geopolitical representations to roundtable discussions before finally sorting through documents about Russian brutality as they recite their memories of the war’s beginning. That it seemed to go on and on as they dropped the seemingly endless series of papers to the floor only emphasised the open-ended nature of the conflict, how there seemed to be no end to their experience of the crimes of Russia.

ЛЮТИЙ | FebrUaRY, from a mesmerising ensemble from Teatr Varta, Lviv, also tried to develop a new means to engage with the conflict, turning to furious dance in an attempt to convey more of the complex emotional experience undergone by many figures of Ukraine’s cultural scene as a result of the invasion. With poetic language giving way to pounding orchestration and irresistible choreography, it offered no easy resolution, but it contained an uneasy and poetic affect that I couldn’t shake for hours after the performance even as the actors insisted that they were giving voice to “our affinity, our absorption in the deep waters of hope.”

The interdisciplinary Czuję do Ciebie miętę | I Fancy You, which began with its author-performers, Nina Zakharova and Kateryna Vasiukova, crawling out from behind the screen that served as a backdrop, offered a story of sisterly love and connection; the war in Ukraine was the background that would break out and through. This too was a hybrid work, which incorporated song, dance, monologue, and a kind of game show, which all played with the history of the Ukrainian modernist writers Olha Kobylianska and Lesya Ukrainka. It thus gestured toward a world before and beyond the war—a connection between women artists that Russia’s militant masculinity could not break.

The Natives of Maria Blut: Formally perfect

Photo: Susanne Hassler-Smith 

The Natives of Maria Blut understands the primitive and utopian yearnings that continue to drive us today.

Mania was the subject rather than affect of The Natives of Maria Blut, a play that does transport us to the past, but with fresh staging and sharp dialogue that made it perhaps the most formally perfect piece of the festival.

The director Lucia Bihler and dramaturge Alexander Kerlin of Vienna’s Burgtheater have fashioned the 1937 modernist novel of Maria Lazar into a stunning production comprised of short scenes that, each ending in a kind of tableau captured by camera flash, truly transmitted the intensity of the modernist text and period.

History is happening here in iconic fashion in this small town, where the baby-faced “natives” lose everything to a swindler on the radio, who promises them the “bombproof” profits of “spacepower,” before throwing their lot in with the fascists against the Bolsheviks and Jews. With the natives of the town figured by pantomiming actors wearing enormous masks, the sense of the people being filled with the thoughts and desires of other forces—whether religion, radio prophet, or fascist leader—is literalised to both comic and horrific effect.

Offering snapshots into the trajectories of the households of a doctor, a Jewish family, and an uneducated family of workers, all structured around the idol of Maria Blut, a local saint whose form dominates the stage, The Natives of Maria Blut presents an image of the past that understands the primitive and utopian yearnings that continue to drive us today.

Time out of joint

Photo: Claudia Heysel

It was a performance dedicated to the idea that “time is out of joint”

The final performance of the festival was the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau’s Hamlet which went so deep into the play of desire that it successfully de-psychologised a work that is often considered a central piece in the representation of the modern psyche. In a tremendous a feat of stagecraft, a great table was constructed that, by means of mirrors, seemed to extend into infinity. Behind these screens we saw the scenes of the court of Claudius played out by a despicably charismatic Stephen Korves, sometimes transmitted to the front by virtue of a video feed, sometimes simply ghostly shapes in the background.

At the same time a doubled Hamlet, performed with eerie effect by Niklas Herzberg and Felix Axel Preißler, held forth about his father’s death and the question of revenge. This cyclical, refracted Hamlet eschewed the psychological narrative of the original, in favour of this polyphony. It wasn’t for everyone. People streamed out when the doors opened and the play began to repeat itself after the two-hour mark. But it was a performance dedicated to the idea that “time is out of joint”.

In fact, that famous phrase could have been a theme of this year’s Theatertreffen. The old rigid forms of five acts told straight might not, on this evidence, be adequate to deal with the realities that confront us today, nor to face down the specters of our history which have never faded away.