MUNICH — Before a second nationwide lockdown went into effect in early November, Germany’s theaters — and their audiences — had been adjusting to measures that allowed a semblance of normal cultural life in the midst of the pandemic. Mandatory masks, spread-out seating plans and pragmatic program changes all ensured that the country’s playhouses were operating safely.
But after two months of performing under these changed circumstances, theaters seemed taken aback when, on Oct. 28, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced they would have to close again. This time around, they have not gone gently.
Officially, the second lockdown will last only a month, but few companies expect to return to the stage in early December. Faced with the threat of indefinite closure, they have reacted with refreshing chutzpah, challenging politicians to consider live performance as an essential service rather than a leisure activity.
“There is no danger of infection if you maintain the minimum distance of six feet and properly ventilate the auditorium,” said an open letter to lawmakers signed by arts administrators in the state of Bavaria. “So far, not a single case of infection has been proved to come from a theater visit,” the letter added.
I’ve been impressed with the precautions that playhouses have taken, although I’d be lying if I said that my much-curtailed theatergoing has not been attended by anxiety every step of the way, from riding the subway and avoiding audience members in the lobby to carefully filing out of the theater after the show.
Sometimes, that sense of unease was magnified when a production hardly seemed to justify the risk, like Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s staging of “The Oresteia” at the Volksbühne in Berlin. The show, scheduled to return when the lockdown is lifted, makes for a loud and cluttered evening that has surprisingly little to do with Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy.
For one thing, the bulk of the dialogue is by Edward Albee! For the first half-hour, I found myself wondering if I was in the wrong theater, as two actors performed the opening scene of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Then the actress Sarah Franke informed us that the production’s director had fled to Iceland after a personal crisis and left her in charge.
In a rare moment of calm, Franke helpfully summarized the plot of “The Oresteia,” the original dysfunctional family drama. Shortly, the production devolved into a free-for-all: Actors stripped and played dress-up with eclectic costumes and masks and danced jerkily to music that included Tom Lehrer and Radiohead.
Was all this a reflection of the creative panic of producing art in a time of global uncertainty? If so, it seemed that Arnarsson’s production had abdicated any responsibility to make sense.
“The Oresteia” was one of four premieres that the Volkbühne managed to stage in the eight weeks it was open this fall. The Schaubühne, on the other side of town, opened later and was only two weeks into its season when the lockdown arrived.
One work that was supposed to play in the new season, but never made it, was Marius von Mayenburg’s “The Apes,” which celebrated its world premiere at the theater the day before the first lockdown began. (I caught the only performance so far, in March, but it, too, is scheduled to return when the new lockdown ends.)
In “The Apes,” a family must come to grips with a patriarch (Robert Beyer) who wills himself to become a monkey, slowly but surely. The paterfamilias is an oil tycoon, and his surreal, Kafkaesque transformation seems either a repudiation of, or punishment for, man’s plunder of the natural world. The show asks what it means to be human, although its reams of dialogue are less impressive and absorbing than Beyer’s simian movements and gestures.
While the Schaubühne’s plans for this season have been repeatedly frustrated (the company’s director, Thomas Ostermeier, has taken the unpopular view that theaters should remain closed through the winter and extend their summer seasons), the Residenztheater in Munich managed in five weeks to pack in six premieres for works that will run throughout the season, including Alexander Eisenach’s hallucinogenic new production of “One Against Them All” (“Einer gegen alle”).
Based on “The Wolf,” a 1932 antiwar novel by Oskar Maria Graf, it traces the homecoming of a soldier traumatized by trench warfare. At the start of the evening, a dazzling comic strip is projected against a scrim: a friezelike procession of human slaughter, from antiquity to the present. It is an effective tone-setter for this discombobulating romp through interwar Germany, where a fragile peace proved to be a prelude to more bloodshed.
The staging is elaborate, with many moving parts, much of it captured in crisp, fluid HD video by Oliver Rossol and projected on a screen above the performers. Yet little in the production coheres. At best, it seems like a string of intricate set pieces. But if the narrative seems out of joint, this may well be the point Eisenach is trying to make about the fragmented world we see depicted.
I saw “One Against Them All” in mid-October, but when I returned to the Residenztheater two weeks later, Bavaria’s regional legislature had slashed maximum theater capacities from 200 to 50 as it tried to deal with rising rates of infection. Yet the mood seemed far from funereal for the premiere of “Danton’s Death.”
Immersed in the director Sebastian Baumgarten’s grand guignol vision of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, one soon forgot the absurdity of a theater mounting such an elaborate production for a handful of spectators.
The powerful 1835 play, by Georg Büchner, dramatizes the bloody rivalry between Georges Danton and Maximillien Robespierre, two of the Revolution’s leaders. Baumgarten is faithful to Büchner’s text, which is largely based on historical documents, though the production also alludes to future upheavals, such as the Russian Revolution (there’s an animated Lenin) and more recent civil unrest.
At the curtain call, the Rezidenztheater’s artistic director, Andreas Beck, urged the audience to sign an online petition calling for a pandemic policy that would guarantee the right to cultural life. “We shouldn’t accept just any means of dealing with the virus,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed several days after the lockdown went into effect, in an open letter to Berlin’s mayor.
“Cultural institutions are more than mere leisure activities,” said the letter, signed by 23 of the city’s top arts administrators. They are “places of encounter, discourse, education and enlightenment, but also of aesthetic pleasure,” it added.
“A democratic society nourishes and educates itself through cultural participation,” the letter continued. Such a conviction goes beyond the success or failure of individual productions. The resilience of Germany’s theaters through the fall and their efforts to perform safely and responsibly are strong arguments that cultural life right now is not only possible, but essential.
The Oresteia. Directed by Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson. Berlin Volksbühne.
The Apes. Directed by Marius von Mayenburg. Schaubühne Berlin.
One Against Them All. Directed by Alexander Eisenach. Residenztheater Munich.
Danton’s Death. Directed by Sebastian Baumgarten. Residenztheater Munich.
All shows remain in repertory, but theaters throughout Germany are closed until at least Nov. 30.