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  • Theatrical emergency: How Berlin theatre is failing to recognise our shared humanity


Theatrical emergency: How Berlin theatre is failing to recognise our shared humanity

The conflict in Gaza has seen a culture war break out in Germany. And the Berlin stage is putting up little resistance.

The Situation. Photo: Ute Langkafel

It’s been impossible to live in Berlin since October 7 – especially as a Jew – and not think about the ongoing tragedy in Israel and Palestine. It has sometimes been hard to attend to the stages when it’s seemed that the real theatre was taking place in the streets. But the conversations on the street have, occasionally, made their way to the stage – as on October 21, when Marina Frenk directly addressed the audience at Eine Niere hat nichts mit Politik zu tun: gespenster des Totaliautaripostkommupseudoeurasiismus at Maxim Gorki Theatre.

Reflecting on whether speech was free, she asked, “What do you think about Israel?” No one answered. Indeed, the desire for the honest, open dialogue that Germany desperately needs – and at which theatre can excel – is lacking. Berlin’s theatres ought to be providing the stages for these difficult conversations, and they aren’t.

Marina Frenk in ‘Eine Niere hat nichts mit Politik zu tun: gespenster des Totaliautaripostkommupseudoeurasiismus’. Photo: Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

One might have expected this dialogue to take place at the Gorki. For years, the progressive theatre has been home to The Situation, an award-winning performance about not only the “situation” of Israel and Palestine, but also how it plays out in Berlin, where diasporic communities of Israelis and Palestinians live side by side. On October 13,  the theatre’s artistic leadership and director Yael Ronen called off upcoming performances.

The leadership justified its decision to postpone performances, in part, by declaring that “war demands a simple division into friend and enemy.” It was “on the side of all Jewish people in Germany”. Ronen’s own statement, expressing understandable shock and sadness, suggested that The Situation belonged to an old reality that “has been shaken to its core”. She needed time away “while the horrors are still unfolding…a moment to fall apart, disintegrate”.

Photo: IMAGO / Stefan Trappe

However, Ronen’s was not the only voice of grief. For Maryam Abu Khaled and Karim Daoud, actors who had collaborated in developing the piece, the decision to postpone was a betrayal, a refusal to let them take the stage when it was most necessary to remind the public that Palestinian experience is also human experience. “What I do on stage expresses one out of countless and thousands of Palestinian narratives that suffer under this occupation,” wrote Daoud on Facebook. “And now, I write this statement and I am reminded that this is not a play or a performance, but a reality, our reality!”

On Instagram, Abu Khaled noted that “the war isn’t happening just NOW my dear colleagues” and similarly pointed out that Gorki’s official statements had effaced her experience. Forced off stage, she made her case online for the acknowledgement of shared humanity that theatre can showcase: “It’s crucial to remember that the other side comprises of [sic] human beings too who suffer and feel pain and experience fear just like you.”

Cancellation only furthered the conditions that created the current crisis, she insisted, which was “the consequence of not considering the past, closing our eyes to the present, and destroying the future by not putting ourselves in other peoples [sic] SITUATION”. 

Photo: © Dareen Tatour

But cancellations continue. The Monologfestival at TD Berlin indefinitely postponed its November 16 production, Mein Bedrohliches Gedicht (“My threatening poem”), a monologue by the Palestinian writer Dareen Tatour, to be performed by the Israeli-Palestinian actress Lamis Ammar. The artistic leadership regretfully explained, “the context in which the production would be received has changed significantly”. Still, it is a bitter irony that Tatour’s writing, a reflection on Tatour’s imprisonment in Israel after she posted a poem on social media, has once again been deemed too threatening for public engagement.

Since October 7, theatres have asked their audiences to consider the position of Jews in Germany. In the span of one week in November, I attended Berliner Ensemble’s discussion, “Judenhass: Friedman im Gespräch”(“Jew Hatred: Friedman in Conversation”) and the Deutsches Theater’s PEN Berlin event, “Nie Wieder ist Jetzt” (“Never Again is Now”). These events are important, but I wondered, where was even a cursory notice of the position of Palestinians in this moment of global tragedy– and Germany’s Muslim minority, more generally? Where are the theatrical evenings that reckon with the mounting Islamophobia?

Michel Friedman. Photo: Berliner Ensemble

Since October 7, not only was there an attempted firebombing of a Berlin synagogue, but also more than thirty attacks on mosques across Germany. Politicians across the spectrum are framing Germany’s Muslim migrants as “antisemitic young men” and trumpeting deportation.

Theatre, which is no zero-sum calculation of victimhood, has a responsibility in such a moment. Theatre has a great tradition of granting voice and visibility to people throughout society, spotlighting our shared mortal fragility. But Berlin’s theatres are failing all of us – no matter religion, race, or nationality – by failing to consider the real suffering of Palestinians as well as Israelis, by failing to engage the real angst of Muslims and Jews in Germany, by failing to engage antisemitism and Islamophobia simultaneously.

They are failing us – and themselves – by failing to consider our interlinked humanity. At its best, theatre is an art that disrupts old modes of thought and reconceives old stories. Right now, tragically, Berlin’s theatres are only repeating them.