Ibsen in Berlin

By Carson, Marvin | Ibsen News and Comment, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ibsen in Berlin


Carson, Marvin, Ibsen News and Comment


John Gabriel Borkman and An Enemy of the People, Theatertreffen, May, 2012

A Doll House, Maxim Gorki Theatre, May 4 - 21,2012

The situation of professional productions of Ibsen is today totally different in America and Germany, and neither tradition can be said to be very encouraging for those who love and admire the dramatist. In major United States professional theatres, Ibsen is simply no longer done. The productions are imported from elsewhere, usually England or Australia, and these, though often well acted, are both infrequent and highly conventional. In Germany, the situation is almost reversed, but not to the advantage of Ibsen. His plays, along with those of Chekhov, Schiller, and Shakespeare, can be found in the repertoire of almost every major theatre, and it would be a rare week or month in any German city of any size where no Ibsen work could be seen. The Theatertreffen Festival in Berlin, featuring the ten productions from German-speaking Europe considered the best of the previous year, presented two Ibsen works this year. One can hardly image such a competition in America, let alone Ibsen being so prominent in it. On the other hand, these two productions are for the most part such radical reworkings that even their author would have difficulty recognizing them. I guess that I would prefer wildly distorted Ibsen to no Ibsen at all, but it is not a very attractive choice.

The John Gabriel Borkman of the Norwegian Vegard Vinge and the German Ida Müller was by far the most talked-about production of the Festival and the one to which tickets were most difficult to obtain. Giving a specific review of this piece is impossible since although it is composed of a number of pre-determined elements that follow a certain sequence, these are selected, arranged and altered in different ways in different performances by the director, improvising the choices on the spot. During its earlier run, also in Berlin, at the Prater, the program was announced to run approximately seven hours, though it is reported to have run anywhere from three to twelve hours. Revived for the Theatertreffen, it was announced to average eleven hours, but usually ran a bit longer, up to sixteen hours in one case. The night I attended it was close to twelve. Since the show begins at 4:30 in the afternoon, this virtually guarantees an early morning ending. Audience members are free to come and go, and most do so, some never returning, so that most nights the original full house (the production always had a waiting list at the Theatertreffen) of around 300 had normally dwindled to 30 or less by the conclusion.

This is the fourth Ibsen experiment by Vegard and Müller and their second in Berlin. Last year, also at the Prater, at the same time as the Theatertreffen but not a part of it, they offered a "theatre installation" of The Wild Duck (on which I briefly reported in last year's Ibsen News and Comment), which had many features in common with the current Borkman: cartoon-like settings and costumes; grotesque masks worn by all the characters; obsessive repetition of sequences, lines, or words; the casual mixing of Ibsen's text with all sorts of cultural, political, social, literary and pop culture references; and, above all, the extended use of time. The production was performed only once, and no one saw it all, for it ran continuously, 24 hours a day, for a full week. It was actually performed in the lobby of the Prater, the auditorium then being remodeled, and audience members could observe it from the street through windows into the lobby, under the protection of a temporary shed decorated with pop art cartoons. I do not know if a full week allowed the company to perform their work with all its variations, but I suspect not.

Borkman is performed inside the Prater in a more conventional theatre space. The audience enters this space, however, after passing a smaller, enclosed stage-like area seen through peepholes which represents the office of Hinkle, Borkman's successful rival. …

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