Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin
Opened 29 September, 2010

Mark Ravenhill’s 2007/8 cycle of short plays has been renamed for German consumption (albeit renamed in English), on the grounds that the video-game formula which constituted its title hitherto, “Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat”, would be opaque to non-native speakers. It is immensely rare for the Berliner Ensemble to stage the work of a British playwright (the last instance seems to have been in 1994 with Edward Bond’s Olly’s Prison, which coincidentally is only now receiving its UK première in a London pub theatre), but Claus Peymann’s staging keeps these plays in tune with the Ensemble’s ethos as, even a few generations on, the heirs of Brecht both dramaturgically and politically. He has trimmed Ravenhill’s series down to eleven plays and a little over three hours, and adroitly stitches the constituent parts together, finding continuities not always apparent on their deliberately fragmented London premiere. Now we can clearly see characters recurring, and sometimes even an organic flow from play to play, as well as the verbal and thematic motifs.
The most obvious of these last are the words “freedom and democracy” themselves. They serve as an encapsulation of values and lifestyles that are variously imposed, defended, enjoyed, undermined, hymned and excoriated; we see the ways in which these officially sanctioned totems both inform and deform all our lives, through military or police agencies or simply via cultural hegemony. The middle-aged gay couple in The Mikado (all the individual plays are named after classic works), one of whom is dying of cancer, are as much prey to this social pervasion as the torture victim in Paradise Lost. And when the characters in Yesterday An Incident Occurred start advocating that offenders and/or outsiders be branded and even burnt to death, of course these images resonate especially powerfully against German history.
Johannes Schütz’s set consists of a flight of shallow white steps running the width of the stage, on which the cast of 15 perform with a minimum of fuss, often addressing the audience directly, in a style which is natural without succumbing to the blandishments of naturalism. Among the strongest performances are Christian Grashof as the dying man in The Mikado, Corinna Kirchhoff as a wife and mother in denial of psychosomatic illness in Intolerance and Friederike Kammer as a well-meaning neighbour lured into the apparatus of prejudice and repression in Paradise Lost. It is no accident that by the end of the evening, the words “freedom and democracy” sound utterly hollow.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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