Theatrical moves Shaking Up Brecht’s House

The legendary Berliner Ensemble has been most closely associated with the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht. The theater’s newly appointed artistic director hopes to move beyond the current repertoire and attract new writers.
Downfall of the Egotist Johann Fatzer, a Brecht play at the Berliner Ensemble.

One of Berlin’s most important cultural institutions is about to receive an injection of fresh blood. The legendary Berliner Ensemble has selected a relatively young artistic director to take the theater beyond its somewhat staid rotation of well-known plays and attract new dramatic voices.

On Monday, Berlin’s culture minister Tim Renner announced that after almost 20 years at the helm, Claus Peymann will step down at the end of his contract and be replaced by Oliver Reese, the current artistic director of the Schauspiel theater in Frankfurt am Main.

Mr. Reese will take over the reins in 2017 at an establishment most closely associated with the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht. While he intends to honor that history, he is also pledging to shake things up at the venerable institution.

Mr. Reese had been the chief dramaturge at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater and Deutsche Theater before going to Frankfurt in 2009.

Mr. Peymann has been the Berliner Ensemble's artistic director since 1999. His tenure has been deemed successful and there had been speculation that the 77-year-old might extend his contract beyond 2016.

However, Mr. Reese, now in his 50s, is likely to bring new ideas to the theater, which has become stuck in something of a rut.

Although his contract in Frankfurt only runs out in 2019, Mr. Reese had a clause, similar to those given to top soccer players, that would allow him to leave if he received a substantially more attractive offer. And Berlin is regarded as the most important center for theater in the country, the Bayern Munich of the thespian world.

The Berliner Ensemble is no ordinary theater. It was established by Brecht in 1949 and after his death in 1956, its work was carried on by his widow Helene Weigel.

It is housed in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, on the banks of the River Spree and a stone’s throw from the Friedrichstrasse train station. There in 1928, Brecht first presented “The Threepenny Opera,” a musical he wrote with composer Kurt Weil. It is arguably his best-known work.

There is a lack of new pieces for the big stage. Oliver Reese, Appointed artistic director, Berliner Ensemble

In the period of the Weimar Republic, after World War I and before the rise of the Nazis, Berlin was a cultural mecca for artists from across Europe and theater was one of the many arts that thrived here during the Golden Twenties. Brecht, originally from Bavaria, came to Berlin in 1924 to work as an assistant to legendary director Max Rheinhardt.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Brecht, a Marxist, fled Germany, spending much of his time in exile in the United States. He returned to Berlin in 1949, and in 1954 he moved his troupe back into his old theater in what was then East Berlin.

Brecht was one of the few German intellectuals to settle in East Germany after the war, and was treated like a star by the regime. However, he never joined the East German communist party.

His work, with plays such as "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" or "Mother Courage," is imbued with his politics, to the point of being didactic, but also has its own aesthetic, particularly marked by his pared-down minimalist approach to staging.

Quelle: dpa
A statue of Brecht outside the theater.
(Source: dpa)


As a result of this important connection, the theater’s program is still very heavily skewed toward Brecht and other modernist writers, such as Samuel Beckett, and in particular Heiner Müller, the East German playwright and poet who was the theater’s artistic director until his death in 1995.

Many of these older plays have been reinterpreted by famous directors, such as the avant-garde American, Robert Wilson. Mr. Wilson’s collaboration with the singer Rufus Wainwright on Shakespeare’s Sonnets was probably one of the most popular productions at the theater in recent years.

Mr. Reese said that he wants the Berliner Ensemble to be “a contemporary theater,” something that could only be achieved by becoming an “authors’ theater,” within an international context.

“There is a lack of new pieces for the big stage,” he said, adding that the theater had instead concentrated on directors and their more or less original interpretations of a well-known repertoire.

Mr. Reese referred to Berlin as a cultural hotspot, which is attractive dramatists, said he also envisaged bringing other writers on board who have never written for the stage.

With a “powerful ensemble of protagonists,” and new texts, the theater could succeed and attract new audiences just as a new film attracts them to the cinema, he said. 

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. Siobhán Dowling is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].