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Signature takes on canonical texts: In theatres this September

A new season is kicking off on Berlin stages with a slew of big-name directors offering new takes on classical texts. Openings this month include Shakespear's "Lear" (Sep 8), Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" (Sep 5), Homer's "Odyssey" (Sep 12) and more.

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Berlin’s stages may just be waking from their summer slumber but behind the scenes, ensembles have been hard at work rehearsing. And as the curtain rises on the new Spielzeit, an impressive slew of big-name directors throw their signature styles at classic texts.

First off, Sebastian Hartmann takes on Shakespeare’s Lear at the Deutsches Theater. For the uninitiated, Hartmann is the Marmite of German avant-garde theatre: you either love him or hate him. This yeasty quality earned his manic rendition of Dostoyevsky’s Humiliated and Insulted an invitation to this year’s Theatertreffen, but also saw a considerable proportion of the audience leave during it. Those expecting a faithful staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy best look elsewhere. Hartmann draws liberally on his source texts, here also interweaving playwright Wolfram Lotz’s spoken-word play Die Politiker. Bringing themes of property and inheritance to the fore, the result should chime nicely with current political discourse in the capital. Meanwhile, British director Katie Mitchell returns to the Schaubuhne, teaming up with Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again author Alice Birch to stage a multimedia production of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic Orlando with live video. On-stage camerawork is certainly nothing new on German stages. However, directors here would be wise to learn a thing or two from Mitchell’s seamless yet experimental approach to video in theatre.

Over at the Berliner Ensemble, the enfant terrible of German theatre Ersan Mondtag tackles Brecht with a production of Baal. The deservedly hyped wunderkind has an auteurist approach to theatre that sidelines wordy dialogue in favour of an intricate and rich mise-en-scène. It’s a style that’s nabbed the 32-year-old scores of awards, three Theatertreffen invitations and catapulted him into the big league of German practitioners.

As the dust settles on a turbulent two years at the Volksbuhne, the iconic institution seems to be in good stead. Rene Pollesch may have been appointed rightful heir to the Castorf-throne post-2021 but in the meantime, interim intendant Klaus Dörr has two exciting seasons in store with a new ensemble and two resident directors. This season opens with Icelandic director Thorleifur Orn Arnarsson’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. The production joins the dots between Ancient Greece and Cold War Berlin to tread into the current discussion on right-wing populism’s influence on cultural institutions.

Finally, Gorki re-opens its mainstage following renovations with a look to the East: the Bosnian-born dramatist provocateur Oliver Frljić sets his sights on two Russian heavyweights, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in Anna Karenina or Poor Folk. Don’t expect Frljić to get all soppy with these two love stories though. The director has a reputation for ruffling feathers, interchangeably taking the AfD, the church or just Western civilisation in general into his crosshairs.

As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But with a literary canon chock-a-block with (predominantly) dead white men, perhaps it needs a modern twist: if it ain’t woke, fix it. It just so happens that some of Europe’s most promising directors are on the case. Now if only they themselves were a tad more diverse…

Lear | Sep 8, 13, 24, 27, with English surtitles, Deutsches Theater, Mitte

Orlando | Sep 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, Schaubuhne, Wilmersdorf

Baal | Sep 6, 7, 20, 21, with English surtitles on Sep 20, Berliner Ensemble, Mitte

Odyssey | Sep 12, 14, 21, 22, with English surtitles, Volksbuhne, Mitte

Anna Karenina or Poor Folk | Sep 14, 15, 20, 27, 29, with English surtitles, Maxim Gorki Theater, Mitte