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Stages of apocalypse: Berlin’s theatres ponder what the future might hold

This season, Berlin's stages seem to be rehearsing the future. But will it bring obliteration, or utopia?

Sasha Waltz SYM-PHONIE. Photo: Bernd Uhlig

Amidst strobing lights and descending dust at September’s Atonal festival, valkyries danced in the air, their bare backs pierced by the hooks that held them aloft. In the middle of the Kraftwerk complex, Florentina Holzinger and her team of dancers beat on thunder sheets and rang a giant bell, from which another dancer hung. As their bodies became the medium of this vibration, it felt like a sensational portent, an announcement of something – but what? 

Perhaps it heralded the new year of theatre. Can you not make out the music? Can you not hear the (stage) whispers? Can you not perceive the glow of the thousand scrims? It’s now several months since the stages of Berlin reopened. Each one of them seems to be rehearsing the future, wondering whether we are on the edge of obliteration or salvation, apocalypse or utopia.  

At the Berliner Festspiele, Sasha Waltz & Guests’ SYM-PHONIE MMXX presented a spectacular, if ambivalent, vision of what might come. The dancers warred, two groups facing off amidst music that seemed to mean only disaster. But when it faded out, the dancers had to rebuild the performance and world according to the sound and rhythm of their breath and feet. They died and were laid to rest. They were resuscitated. Full of high hoists and lifts that promised to take the flying dancers into a new future, the performance ended with a stone slab threatening to crush the dancers beneath it. The final dancer nimbly slipped out just before the window of opportunity closed shut. But can we?

Weltall Erde Mensch (“Space Earth Human”) Photo: Thomas Aurin

On the more hopeful end of the spectrum, the Deutsches Theatre has inaugurated the new intendancy of Iris Laufenberg with a performance full of utopian yearning: Weltall Erde Mensch (“Space Earth Human”). The science fiction fantasia proposes a storytelling that draws inspiration from the carrier bag of the hunter-gatherer as a storytelling structure for the unknown that awaits. And its optimism that there might yet be a future isn’t totally alone among Berlin’s recent productions.

The English Theatre’s Bowie in Berlin, starstruck jukebox musical that it might be, begins from the perspective of astronauts a thousand years in the future, as they try to decipher the signals sent by “the Starman” (its moniker for the musician). However, its unquestioning belief in the future is tempered by its asinine reading of the past – a quite forced (and, at times, historically inaccurate) account of the Berlin Wall and Bowie’s role in bringing it down – wasting its actors’ spirited performances. 

Meanwhile, the Volksbühne began its season with a bleaker view of humanity’s prospects. Julien Gosselin’s excruciating Extinction might begin with a dance party on the stage, but the five-hour-long play, which takes place almost entirely as a video projection, grows increasingly airless – a noose tightening around the audience. As the score ratchets up the tension, the actors pontificate about the imminent end of the world. The performance ends with neither apocalyptic release nor epiphany – only the baffling choice to soften a Thomas Bernhard rant into a sappy melodrama of Holocaust memory.

Danton’s Death/Iphigenia Photo: Ute Langkafel

If you wanted to look to the present for your apocalypse, I much preferred the dissolution of neoliberal modernity in the Schabühne’s season opener, The Life of Vernon Subutex 1. Or, for a revisitation of a past apocalypse that actually finds new form, Chief Hijangua at the Haus der Rundfunk presented a mythic (if slightly gentler) version of social collapse brought about by the German colonisation of the Herero and Nama peoples. And even when the Maxim Gorki Theatre’s Herbstsalon festival had to postpone its opening premiere of Frankenstein, or Paradise Lost, the premiere of the powerful Danton’s Death/Iphigenia offered, amidst its waterfalls of blood, a definition of apocalypse as chilling as any other: that everything might continue as before. 

The work’s astute gloss of Walter Benjamin‘s famous line – “that things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe” – shines a grim light on the classic truism of show business: the show must go on. Indeed, sickness is once again on the rise in the city and its theatres. A weekend of Sibylle Berg’s Es kann doch nur noch besser werden was cancelled due to illness, and almost every performance I’ve seen since mid-September has required some substitution of vital cast and crew due to infection. 

Indeed, at the core of these theatrical performances of the future, present and past is a tremendous collective effort – a reminder that there can be no future if we don’t make it through our present with care for each other and shared attention. For is this sense of a shared world not the bell that every staged piece – a testament to a great collective effort on and off the stage – rings?