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Wolfram Lotz: Lost in the Afghan rainforest

Mixing "Heart of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now" with current events like piracy in Somalia and the Afghan war, playwright Lotz brings his anarchic production "Die lächerliche Finsternis" to Theatertreffen on May 13 and 14 at Berliner Festspiele.

Image for Wolfram Lotz: Lost in the Afghan rainforest
Photo by Reinhard Maximilian Werner

One of Germany’s most lauded young playwrights, Wolfram Lotz comes to Theatertreffen with Die Lächerliche Finsternis (The Ridiculous Darkness), a play that finds Westerners venturing into an unfamiliar world. The Leipzig-based playwight draws not only from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now but also from current events – piracy in Somalia, for example, and the war in Afghanistan.

It’s a political piece of theatre, and one that mines the absurdities of our postcolonial world. As the protagonists descend deeper into the “Afghan rainforest”, they meet an idiosyncratic cast of characters, including Italian UN peacekeepers overseeing mineral extraction for mobile-phone production, a talking parrot and a Balkan war refugee selling bedsheets, noodles and investment funds.

The piece, which Lotz wrote as a radio play, has been immensely popular – by season’s end, it’ll have been mounted at eight different theatres. The production coming to Theatertreffen is not the one that opened late last year at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater, but the world premiere staged by Dušan David Parízek at Vienna’s Burgtheater. As a kid growing up in a small town in the Black Forest, Lotz knew no theatre beyond Christmas pageants. With its sheep costumes and Jesus baby dolls, theatre always seemed, Lotz says, “an impossible form.” But by the time he hit university, and had begun to write poetry, he reconsidered.

“At first, I had nothing to do with theatre,” says Lotz, 33. “It struck me as ridiculous. But when there’s something problematic with the form, it gives you the chance to address this question of resistance, which I always find interesting.”

The germ of Die lächerliche Finsternis was the 2010 trial of 10 Somali pirates in Hamburg. It was Germany’s first piracy trial in 400 years, and it spiraled into a two-year judicial circus. “It made me angry,” Lotz says. “For me, it’s lunacy to judge people when you don’t know anything about their way of life. But it’s also quite like the problem of writing – how do I write about something without judging it, or saying I know what it’s like?”

And so the play begins with a long monologue from a Somali pirate explaining his path to high-seas swashbuckling – which includes earning a degree in piracy at a university in Mogadishu. From there, two German soldiers emerge, and the Western narrative “swallows up” the Somali one, Lotz says. The play’s structure came to him quickly. But where he ran into difficulties, he says, was writing women into the script. Whereas the Deutsches Theater version features only one woman in the show, Parízek addressed the issue in a canny way: with a four-person, all-female cast.

“That was a very clever decision,” Lotz says. “The journey into the wilderness is a very manly thing, but in the Vienna production you see women on the stage playing men. Which means we see them acting. The problem is apparent the whole time.” And wrestling with such problems – whether in theatre or society – is exactly what Lotz is after. When asked if he sees himself as an anarchistic playwright – as Die Welt described him last year – he grins, somewhat sheepishly, but with a bit of pride. “Aesthetically, I try to cross lines and break rules,” he says. “That word, ‘anarchistic’ it’s of course difficult to say.” He smiles again. “But I like it.”

May 13, 20:00, May 14, 19:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.