28 November 2016 ¦ Katie Hawthorne
The short answer is this: Postdramatic theatre can be lengthy, noisy and complicated, and it goes out of its way to challenge an audience. You will need snacks.
A slightly longer answer should start with “post-”. This year, we’ve seen ominous new terms coined to describe our political landscape: post-truth, post-Brexit and post-Trump have become a part of every-day speech, each pointing towards an uncertain future and a time of unpredicted turbulence. It’s strange, because the “post-“prefix usually signifies critical reflection. In academic terms, at least, we use it to denote that a concept has been updated (e.g. post-modern) or to offer a position of perspective on complicated periods of history (e.g. post-colonial) – but this new kind of “post-” seems to suggest that we are still in the thing, rather than beyond it.
Postdramatic theatre combines both these meanings of “post-”. The term was popularised by German professor Hans -Thies Lehrmann in 1999, and it describes theatre that encourages a critical discussion of a theatrical act, during the act itself. As well as questioning the role of a script, an author, an actor and an audience, postdramatic theatre explores the chasm between drama (i.e. a logical, plot-driven narrative) and theatre (a structured artistic performance, designed to have a certain effect). Essentially, a postdramatic performance positions itself beyond drama through a relentless critique of the artistic decisions made on stage, in real time. Often absurd, political and wilfully ridiculous, this approach might sound prescriptive in ethos but it aims to unpick any kind of theatrical act – the more unconventional, the better.
Frank Castorf is an infamous German director famed for his postdramatic techniques and ability to infuriate audiences. He’s led Berlin’s innovative Volksbühne theatre since 1992, but his tenure concludes in December – so this intrepid Inciting Sparks reporter flew to Germany to experience Castorf’s work first hand.
Die Kabale der Scheinheiligen / Das Leben des Herrn de Moliere is an ensemble performance that spans 5 hours and 15 minutes – or, that’s what the programme promised. It combines Michail Bulgakov’s play The Cabal of Hypocrites with his biography of French playwright Moliere, with extra texts by Racine and Fassbinder added to the mix by Castorf. Take out your postdramatic bingo card and tick off authorship debates, complicated historical timelines and a serious meta-theatricality – and the play’s not even started.
Finding your seat is tricky; the Volksbühne production team have re-surfaced the once traditional, plush auditorium with a steep concrete slope and black plastic chairs. The walls are hung with black tinsel. On stage is a huge, fully operational theatre wagon. That’s a stage upon a stage, if you’re still playing bingo.
You’re feeling focused, and a little wary. The plot seems suspiciously easy to navigate, the set is gorgeous and the audience are laughing along with a rambunctious cast of super talented, comedic actors.
It’s a Saturday night, the Volksbühne is packed, and the queue for the bar is formidable. Stretch your legs, drink some water/wine (a lot of wine), and consume multiple snacks – there’s a long night ahead.
A lot of the dialogue is now in French, à la Moliere, so live surtitles (theatrical subtitles) are your best friend. The tech team have dragged a circus tent and a tacky, faux-Louis Vuitton themed bedroom/multi-purpose sex chamber on to the stage, as well as a huge, wheeled screen which live-streams the on stage action up close and very intimately, thanks to several hand-held cameras.
You’ve got a headache. The narrative has devolved into shouting, singing and lots of graphic, semi-incestual groping. An actor is writhing in a pile of hay, covered in fake blood. You’re no longer sure who’s ‘dead’ and who isn’t. When a tiny boy in a tuxedo pops out from inside a grand piano, you’re not remotely surprised.
At least twenty people have left the auditorium. The 5hr mark feels like a distant dream. A woman in the seat adjacent is asleep. You take vague pride in your endurance, and then consider ducking out, too. Castorf’s not waiting in the foyer to personally berate any quitters. Or is he?
You’ve made it! But wait, the cast have returned for their seventh round of applause. Is this still the play? It’s hard to tell if it’s some meta-theatrical critique of the consumerist relationship between audience and performer, or simply genuine gratitude that we’re all still here.
I research the impact of digital culture on the relationship between theatres and audiences, using Edinburgh and Berlin as case study cities. I see lots of plays, make awkward eye contact with other audience members, and then scrutinise post-show retweets. Outside of the library, I am a freelance journalist.
Article Edited by: Vicki Madden, Katie Goh, Aggie Melia