Last week, acclaimed director Thomas Ostermeier and the Berliner Schaubühne returned to BAM | Brooklyn Academy of Music with a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People. S2S went to see what contemporary German theater is all about these days.
I highly anticipated Thomas Ostermeier‘s Berliner Schaubühne adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, since my first love of all the arts was the theater. Sitting in the dark, all by myself in immediate vicinity to the stage, without the protective arms of my parents, I got hooked at an early age when the company my father worked for would send kids to see The Wizard of Oz and other age appropriate plays during the Christmas holidays.
I quickly graduated to postmodern drama after an encounter with Germania Tod in Berlin (Germania Death in Berlin) by avant-garde dramatist Heiner Müller. I must have been one of maybe three people who lasted through the entire play. By the time Goebbels was lying “spread eagle” on the trunk of a VW giving birth to Hitler’s child – a wolf – most audience members in the provincial North German town I grew up in had disgustedly fled what they believed to be Armageddon. What they considered obscene, I found refreshing.
Fast forward a few decades and what is now considered avant-garde theater is rather tame in comparison. Last week, acclaimed director Thomas Ostermeier and the Berliner Schaubühne returned to BAM with a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People or in German Ein Volksfeind. Although the main themes of the play – industrial pollution, institutional corruption, and social conformity are as current as they were then, today, in an age where environmental or economic disaster strike on a regular basis, it is difficult to elicit anything other than a shoulder shrug.
Following in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre, one could very much sense Thomas Ostermeier’s and Berliner Schaubühne’s goal to provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on stage from the audience. This approach worked best during a speech by the main protagonist, Dr. Stockman, which was based on the anonymous French political essay “The coming Insurrection,” hypothesizing the imminent collapse of capitalist culture:
“We have to see that the economy is not “in” crisis,
the economy is itself the crisis.”
When the doctor directs his frustration over the stupidity of the masses at the audience, we are asked to side with either the left leaning but idealist ‘hero’ or the corrupt but pragmatic capitalist right. One audience member shouted: “Where is the global warming in this?” – apparently missing the point of the piece. But not all was lost. One brave soul pointed out the inefficacy of the event: We are all sitting here comfortably, recognizing social injustice and yet go home and do nothing about it!
In the end, we are back where Brecht started: employing the actor’s direct address to the audience, utilizing harsh stage lighting, and inserting music to interrupt the action. Thomas Ostermeier’s Berliner Schaubühne contemporization of classical material via paint bombs, rock concert style set destruction, and interjection of songs by Bowie, The Clash, etc. is far from radical and certainly will not cause a revolution. Instead, spend your time reading “The coming Insurrection.” This is theater for a Twitter Generation. LOL! #spinningincircles.