The seven Theatertreffen jury members stand in front of a door of a theatre auditorium and look into the camera.

The jury of the 2024 Theatertreffen: Katrin Ullmann, Martin Thomas Pesl, Eva Behrendt, Theresa Luise Gindlstrasser, Janis El-Bira, Sascha Westphal, Valeria Heintges © Stefan Wieland

In Now-Time Mode

Worldliness and the present in this year’s Theatertreffen selection

Two scenes from the past year of theatre. The first one: After the final applause for the premiere of Yael Ronen’s and Shlomi Shaban’s musical-requiem “Bucket List” at Berlin’s Schaubühne, a good two months after the massacre committed by Hamas in Israel, the cast and musicians gather in front of the audience once more. They would like to sing one more song, an encore. A song that didn’t make it into the production. The title song, of all things. The lyrics and the music have long since become vague in my memory. What has remained indelible is this short, four-minute song as a moment of almost devoutly shared here and now between the players and the audience. As if, although the horrible outside reality cannot be shut out, here, in this peculiar chosen community of the theatre, it is a little easier to bear. As if we were, as silly and inappropriate for the profession of critic it may sound, there for each other for one slender moment in time.

A second scene, several months previously: We watch “Riesenhaft in Mittelerde”™ at the Schiffbau-Halle venue of Schauspielhaus Zürich. This is an evening of community too, but of a completely different nature. Only at the very first glance does this theatrical adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings”™-universe resemble the immersive and spectacle-like medieval market event as which it might easily be dismissed. Instead, we find: The purest contemporary theatre, inclusive and diverse, using every discourse trick in the book – and yet playful and with enough faith in fairy tales to attract an extremely heterogeneous audience, who have resolutely made this show their own. So it is only logical that fans and cosplayers return to the performances again and again to contribute their part to this world designed by the artists in Zurich. We find ourselves in a place of fluid identities and field-tested alterities. And for at least two and a half hours, we can rest assured: Every story that is told here wants to have a happy outcome. Together against evil.

Two moments that might be seen as a metaphor for a theatre season that consistently tried to produce worldliness and present times in countless different ways, without wanting to become identical to the world and the present times. That is what made it such a strong season – as witnessed by the comparably large number of shows discussed by us as the jury – far beyond the ten productions that have now been invited to Theatertreffen. Perhaps – as dramatist Sivan Ben Yishai pondered in a speech on the occasion of last year’s award ceremony of the Federal Theatre Prize – the theatre can only follow its true purpose for very short periods of time. Which is to play. In between those times, it is a creature in crisis among other creatures in crisis, responding reactively to reality and more often one step behind it than a step ahead. A shaky candidate, nervously struggling with the issue of its own raison d’être in the face of all current disasters.

Does that mean that the 2023 theatre season was exceptional because it appeared so extravagant, with so much joyful acting and self-confidence? At any rate, it was a season that drew its intense investigations of our present times from the necessity of consolidating itself for a start. Let’s remember: During the entire first half of the last year but one, a spectre called “dwindling audiences” still haunted the often empty auditoriums and blew a particularly cold whiff of death into the theatres’ faces. Had they really, against all expectations, become dispensable after the pandemic? Had people forgotten how to go to the theatre? Or was the theatre simply no longer the place where society communicated with itself, as had often been claimed? And was “society” even one single thing that could be talked about as a whole?

Fortunately, the theatre responded with defiance but wasn’t affronted; it paid attention but didn’t resort to actionism. And it banked on its own original strengths, on fantastic actors and compatible stories. There was and is very little of unworldliness in this response. In fact, it seems as if our reality had infiltrated several of the productions that were invited to Theatertreffen or discussed by the jury. How can you help but think about the climate catastrophe in Johan Simons’ production of “Macbeth”, which he reads as an existential farce, when among all the slaughter and murders high-resolution videos fill the scene with images of insects in the undergrowth of a forest. Let’s not forget: The destruction of the environment will ultimately be directed towards the destroyers. Birnam Wood, which seals Macbeth’s fate by marching towards him, will still be crawling with insects long after people have run out of the air they need to breathe.

And how could you not see a metaphor for the crumbling varnish of western civilisation when the cadaver of a bull progressively decomposes on the stage designed by Johannes Schütz for “ANTHROPOLIS”, Karin Beier’s and Roland Schimmelpfennig’s cycle of ancient tragedies from Hamburg? The gods, whose dominant father figure Zeus once kidnapped and raped the princess Europa in the guise of a bull, have been plucked from the heavens. The culture, values and unity of the continent that was named after the ravished woman are increasingly challenged. In the second part of the cycle, “Laios”, the eponymous Theban ruler, could be read as an ancestor of Macbeth’s, as it were. What they have in common is their resolve to give particular credence to the oracle or the witches’ prophecy where it predicts an increase of their power. Where the predictions forebode disaster, they are dismissed as superstition – until the signs grow stronger and a delusional flickering starts up in their own heads. What follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lina Beckmann plays this Laios – in one of the most outstanding among the striking number of solos produced by this theatre season – as someone who perishes even though they had initially set out to enlighten. He watches in horror as he too must succumb to his consummated fate.

Limits and blind spots of the Enlightenment are also revealed in Ulrich Rasche’s production of “Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise)” from Salzburger Festspiele. Seen from the rear-view mirror of 7 October and the new wave of anti-Semitism, this production now appears as a sinister writing on the wall. Rasche’s staging adheres strictly to Lessing’s text except for the addition of a very few but crucial other texts from the era of Enlightenment. It reveals the casual anti-Semitic reflex to exclude that prevailed even among the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Lessing’s Nathan – driven into breathtaking ecstasies of thinking and reasoning by Valery Tscheplanowa – is portrayed here as a restless character who continues to hone his own mind in the ensuing contention. And yet, he is left out of the laboriously constructed happy end and has no place in the final grand family constellation. This is Lessing’s ferocious indictment of his contemporaries, made tangible by the random boundaries of LED-light walls in Ulrich Rasche’s production: Your humanism is not universal, it is selective. It is hard to imagine how theatre could be more contemporary than this.

Undigested pieces of the past that often poison the here and now also rise to the surface in Falk Richter’s “The Silence”, Gisèle Vienne’s “Extra Life” and Rieke Süßkow’s “ÜBERGEWICHT, unwichtig: UNFORM”, disturbing the status quo. In Süßkow’s Werner Schwab-production, the issue of digestion can be taken quite literally: This “feces drama” is set at an inn where the regulars first gawk at two newcomers and finally cannibalize them. In this staging, the play becomes unbounded and turns into a midnight movie shocker with a shooting gallery-aesthetic. While Schwab focused on playing with language, Süßkow goes straight for the guts of exclusive micro-societies that stabilize themselves by separation and assimilation of perceived threats from outside. Disgust and compassion are held in the balance. A show crafted with the precision of intestinal peristalsis.

Falk Richter, on the other hand, continues to work on his theatre of critical autobiography. Actor Dimitrij Schaad (another superb soloist) oscillates artfully between a Falk Richter-character, an omniscient narrator and his own point of view. “The Silence” deals with Richter’s engagement with his mother and thus with the generation of parents in post-war West Germany. It is a play that you want to keep talking about, because there are so many points of connection, because it is open and permeable, even where its specifics may not translate to your own biography. “The Silence” is – and this again is typical for this season – a show that invites us to think about and relate to, without trying to lecture us. “Extra Life” by Gisèle Vienne extends a similar invitation, even though our sojourn in her artfully arranged space of repressed memories of abuse comes with a feeling of deliberate discomfort. Vienne shows herself a master of the externalization of internal states when the injuries of the protagonists gradually become apparent between landscapes of lasers and dry ice. Their pain is made legible in the space.

Toxic relationships are also negotiated in the two reputedly most zeitgeisty productions of this year’s season: Jette Steckel with her Chekhov-update “Die Vaterlosen (Fatherless)” from Münchner Kammerspiele, carried by a brilliant cast around Wiebke Puls and Joachim Meyerhoff. And the company of Theaterhaus Jena, who looked at a story that dampened the theatre world’s mood last spring – the infamous “dog feces-attack” on a dance critic by a choreographer. The two productions approach their respective contemporaneity checks from different angles. Steckel underlays the classic play with a reflection on fathers who may themselves be fatherless and who actually do a lot more than mansplaining as “Dad Men Talking”. And in Jena, a topical event becomes an opportunity for an equally intelligent and moving live dissection of the vulnerable body of art production. What they have in common is the fact that they both handle their material with the high degree of earnestness that is the only source of real fun. Together with the productions mentioned before and many others, they stand for a year of theatre that managed to form an idea of our present times without making a case for crises, wars and social erosion. The theatre was wayward. Full of skepticism, grief, vicious wit and open wounds. But it did not appear powerless.

Janis El-BiraMember of the Theatertreffen Jury 2024