• Stage
  • Sibylle Berg’s state of emergency


Sibylle Berg’s state of emergency

Author and playwright Sibylle Berg has satirised our relationship with technology, power and gender in over 15 novels and 29 plays.

Photo: Dominik Butzmann

It’s hard to believe that Sibylle Berg could ever fear being boring. Possessed of one of the most fecund and ferocious imaginations in contemporary German-language literature, the author and playwright has remorselessly satirised our relationship with technology, power and gender across 15 novels and 29 plays since 1997.

Born in the DDR in 1962, their life is the stuff of myth, with many false stories about them circulating – which a tongue-in-cheek documentary, Who’s afraid of Sibylle Berg (2015), only added to. Berg currently has one performance running at the Maxim Gorki Theater, Sicher ist mit mir die Welt verschwunden, (“Surely the world disappears with me”) about hospitalised women on the verge of death revisiting their disappointing lives. Another, Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannten Draußen [REMAKE] (“The so-called outside doesn’t mean anything to me”), a dark and humorous fable about digital bubbles, is about to begin.

This autumn, Berg will begin a collaboration with Berliner Ensemble, staging two new pieces. Supplementing their other meditations on the state of contemporary femininity, Berg’s works are dystopian in nature. Es kann doch nur noch besser werden: Ein Stück mit Musik für diverse Leute (“It can only get better: a play with music for various people”), is premiering in September and deals with a future digital reality that is an uncanny evocation of our present one. And come spring, Berg will follow with an adaptation of their 2022 novel, RCE: #RemoteCodeExecution, about revolutionary hackers in a near-future Europe, where constant technological surveillance entrenches the elites and immiserates the rest.

We talked to Berg to discuss their new collaboration with the Berliner Ensemble, their relationship with digital technology and adapting novels for the big stage.

How do you write so unbelievably much?

I have nothing else to do. I get up and then go to work two metres away at my desk. And then I write. On the one hand, I do it because I would otherwise get bored. On the other, because writing books and plays isn’t a very profitable profession.

You are a prominent figure on X, formerly Twitter, and on Instagram. How would you describe your relationship to social media? Does it have any influence in your work?

Twitter functions really well as a tool for news. I use it because I am interested, above all, in the links to the articles on politics and science from the many different users. Otherwise, I use social media as an advertising tool to let people know about my work – beyond that it doesn’t interest me very much.

The technology of our contemporary moment does feature heavily in your work, though. What is it about technology that you find so interesting?

I understand technology much better than feelings – and better than various pseudo-sciences, such as economics. I love technology and science, engine rooms and circuit boards – I’d like to be much smarter than I am. I was actually always interested in the mixture of technology, science, books and quiet. I don’t like to move. I watch with astonishment the people who, for example, dance. Totally incomprehensible. With my books I always attempt to find out something that I don’t understand. I then try to explore in my plays how what I found out in my books affects the individual.

How else do you think about the key differences between your novels and your plays? For example, why adapt RCE for the stage?

Books demand much more research. My last two books in particular became almost doctoral dissertations, which would be unbelievably boring on stage. Theatre is for me much more about entertainment, albeit with an interesting subject. You read books alone, in bed or in the bathroom. Plays have to work, have to quickly be amusing and entertaining. When I want to watch misery, I watch a Ken Loach film. That some books have been adapted for the stage – or will be adapted – is rarely my idea.

Photo: Dominik Butzmann

I understand that you did some training at a clown school earlier in your life…

I never trained in a clown school. That is an amusing story that journalists copy from each other, and then it lands on Wikipedia, which then becomes evidence for this amusing story for journalists. I haven’t put things right because on one hand, my private life is private, and on the other hand it doesn’t matter.However, between us, I did do a three-month course at an acrobatics-oriented school, because I didn’t yet know what I should study.

But it’s true, in my plays there’s little dialogue – because I find dialogue in plays to often be boring. Perhaps that’s also the case in life! I always find it more interesting when people speak without being interrupted. Of course, this is only when the things that they are talking about actually interest me.

I understand technology much better than feelings – and better than various pseudo-sciences, such as economics.

Your forthcoming play It can only get better is subtitled, “a play with music for various people”. Would you want your novel readers also to have a soundtrack, or is that something special to your theatrical work?

This is due to my special hobby. I like to have music in plays, because at least then the actors can’t scream. Hopefully I do create a kind of soundtrack for the books with the pace of the language and its rhythm. And the music involved with my books also changes – from the grime music in GRIME to electro music with RCE. And by diverse, I mean different in the good old sense. There can be many different people, in purely numerical terms. I don’t like to commit myself to gender stereotypes or limiting personal characteristics. As in real life I find that on the stage, external appearance, religious affiliation, gender identity, sexual orientation are much less relevant than what people do and think.

Your work often engages with revenge as a kind of joyous and purpose-giving experience. How do you see the role of revenge in your work?

Revenge is, in fact, not a very important aspect of my work. There was a motive of revenge in GRIME but that was very secondary. I don’t believe in revenge. I think it is a bad way to deal with mourning, disappointment or hate. Revenge gives the injured individual a short-term – in the planning phase – sense of superiority that outweighs the pain they are trying to overcome. But after revenge, that feeling subsides, giving way to a disappointing emptiness and loneliness.

Do you believe that there is a different reception of your work in Berlin than in other German cities?

No, I do not believe there are great differences in the reception of my work in Germany. More interesting are the reactions in other countries. The best public reaction I had was in London – and the bleakest reception was in France. But criticism doesn’t matter to me. I find that most things that I write are more satirical than cynical, but everyone is free to discover what they want in the work. The most important thing is that the work is seen and read.

Has the preparation for your shows at Berliner Ensemble differed in any way from those at Deutsches Theater and the Maxim Gorki Theater?

The approaches to the work don’t differ that much from theatre to theatre, but rather depend on the material, the cast and the direction. It was clear at Gorki: I did all the plays there with Sebastian Nübling, and the plays all had the same structure because they belonged to the series Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannte Draußen. For the first premiere at the Berliner Ensemble, the selection of the stage and direction depended a little on my desire to work with three people with whom I really wanted to do a play – Meo Wulf, Sita Messer and Perra Inmunda. I had a lot of fun with this team in Zurich at a series of revues I organised and at the 3D film for my last book, RCE. Otherwise it’s the same as always. I come to the reading rehearsal, everyone is in a good mood and then the state of emergency begins – which, strangely enough, is always inherent to theatre rehearsals.

What are your expectations for these forthcoming shows?

Let us rather speak of hope instead of expectations. I hope, simply, that it will not be boring.

  • Sicher ist mit mir die Welt verschwunden, Sep 7, Maxim Gorki Theatre, German with English surtitles
  • Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannten Draussen [REMAKE], Sep 15, Maxim Gorki Theatre, German with English surtitles
  • Es kann doch nur noch besser werden, Sep 19,  21, 22, 30, Oct 1, Berliner Ensemble, in German