Back­stage drama rocks fa­bled Ber­lin theater

The China Post - - LIFE - BY YAN­NICK PAS­QUET

Ber­lin’s world- class theater scene, known for its au­dac­ity and in­no­va­tion, is fac­ing a tem­pes­tu­ous sea­son as the cash-strapped Ger­man cap­i­tal de­bates how much high cul­ture it can bankroll.

The sur­prise an­nounce­ment that the vet­eran artis­tic direc­tor of east Ber­lin’s leg­endary Volks­buehne (Peo­ple’s Stage), Frank Cas­torf, would be bow­ing out in 2017 af­ter a quar­ter cen­tury at the helm sent a jolt through the once-di­vided city.

Ber­lin au­thor­i­ties, who heav­ily sub­si­dize the avant-garde theater and Cas­torf’s dar­ing, po­lit­i­cally charged pro­duc­tions, de­clined to keep the strong-willed iconoclast much be­yond the end of his cur­rent con­tract in 2016.

Talks are un­der­way to find a direc­tor of the theater, which was founded in 1914 to en­ter­tain the city’s work­ing class.

The name that keeps sur­fac­ing is Chris Der­con, the cur­rent direc­tor of Lon­don’s Tate Mod­ern, an op­tion not popular with ev­ery­one in Ber­lin’s some­times frac­tious artis­tic com­mu­nity.

The de­bate has ex­posed se­ri­ous ten­sions be­tween the head­strong lead­ers of the city’s cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and the coali­tion gov­ern­ment of new mayor Michael Mueller, in of­fice since De­cem­ber.

It is no ac­ci­dent that the Volks­buehne has be­come the light­ning rod in the dis­pute.

Re­built af­ter World War II in an im­pos­ing Stal­in­ist style us­ing rem­nants of Hitler’s de­stroyed chan­cellery, the Volks­buehne prides it­self on caus­tic com­men­tary on po­lit­i­cal and cap­i­tal­ist hypocrisy.

Crit­ics won­der whether the Bel­gium-born direc­tor of a Lon­don art mu­seum can bring the rad­i­cal sen- sibil­ity and aware­ness of Ber­lin’s tu­mul­tuous his­tory that is wo­ven into the fab­ric of the theater.

Cas­torf, 63, was a prom­i­nent artist in com­mu­nist East Ger­many be­fore tak­ing the reins of the Volks­buehne in 1992, three years af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall.

His stag­ings are of­ten bold, con­tro­ver­sial and lengthy, and dur­ing his nearly 25 years at the Volks­buehne, it has be­come one of Europe’s lead­ing the­aters.

‘Sad old man’

The pa­tri­arch of the Ber­lin theater scene, Claus Pey­mann of Ber­tolt Brecht’s renowned Ber­liner En­sem­ble, slammed Cas­torf’s dis­missal in a let­ter ad­dressed to Mayor Mueller, a tech­no­crat who took over from the charis­matic Klaus Wow­ereit af­ter 13 years in of­fice.

In the mis­sive which was widely pub­lished in the Ger­man press, Pey­mann said that the Volks­buehne risked be­com­ing an “event venue like all the oth­ers.”

Tak­ing aim in par­tic­u­lar at the city’s new top cul­ture of­fi­cial, Tim Ren­ner, Pey­mann called him “the worst cast­ing choice in a decade” and blasted his pro­pos­als in­clud­ing live stream­ing of theater pre­mieres and a hike in ticket prices for stage plays and opera.

Ren­ner fired back, telling Ber­lin public ra­dio that Pey­mann was an “old, sad man who is flail­ing” and said Der­con could serve as one mem­ber of an ex­pe­ri­enced man­age­ment team “with deep knowl­edge of theater.”

Pey­mann, 77, has led the Ber­liner En­sem­ble since 1999 and is also set to leave his post in 2017.

Cas­torf has also at­tacked Ren­ner, the 50-year-old for­mer head of Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic in Ger­many, for his cul­tural “ig­no­rance” and “lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism.”

The dis­pute has shaped up as a gen­er­a­tional con­flict in a city that has strug­gled un­der a mas­sive debt since re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990.

The Volks­buehne is one of Ber­lin’s most heav­ily sub­si­dized the­aters, to the tune of 17 mil­lion eu­ros ( US$ 19 mil­lion) per year, with au­di­ence num­bers slip­ping de­spite rel­a­tively low picket prices.

Ber­lin, which has a pop­u­la­tion of 3.4 mil­lion peo­ple and public debt of nearly 62 bil­lion eu­ros, paid out 107 mil­lion eu­ros in sup­port to the city’s the­aters this year.

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