MUNICH – This month hundreds of stylish Bavarians, many dressed in the region’s traditional attire in lederhosen and dirndls, gathered for the festive opening of the new Volkstheater, a striking performing arts complex and luxurious built in the cobbled courtyards of a 19th century slaughterhouse.
The fact that the Volkstheater was inaugurated a week after the opening of the Isarphilharmonie, a world-class concert hall, seemed a further signal that Munich was shedding its provincial reputation and becoming a world cultural powerhouse.
Yet the tensions between the local and cosmopolitan impulses of the city’s arts scene remain, and nowhere are they clearer than in the different approaches to the Volkstheater and another state-funded performance hall, the Münchner. Kammerspiele. Once described as Munich’s ‘unloved child’, the Volkstheater was established in 1983 by a conservative mayor who wanted a more traditional alternative to the artistically and politically provocative Kammerspiele.
The $ 150 million hall of the Volkstheater is a vindication of the artistic journey that its longtime leader, Christian Stückl, has charted for the house. In 2002, Stückl arrived as artistic director and set out to build an ensemble of young actors, many of whom were fresh out of drama school. Almost two decades later, the theater is known from afar as a talent incubator. The company‘s “Radical Young” festival, founded in 2005, presents productions by promising theaters from the German-speaking world.
The Kammerspiele – whose history dates back over a century and includes world premieres by dramatic titans Bertolt Brecht and Frank Wedekind – is also in the midst of a new beginning. It recently kicked off its second season under the direction of its artistic director, Barbara Mundel, who has recruited a mostly new (and significantly expanded) cast of actors and a diverse team of artistic collaborators.
Starting in the midst of a pandemic, however, has not been easy, and the Kammerspiele has often struggled to define or articulate its vision. So I wouldn’t be too surprised if the theater ogled the Volkstheater, whose brilliant openness always makes the headlines and generates excitement here, with something like envy.
With a chic home for its tried and true model of traditional theater performed by young players, the Volkstheater appears to be in full swing. But it remains to be seen whether the company will be able to appeal to an audience beyond its predominantly local base.
Stückl’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II”, which opened the scene, seems the kind of elegant but conventional staging that could appeal to a larger audience. The production is sensitively performed and poignantly illustrates the passionate and carefree love of the medieval English king for Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall, whom the monarch pursues as his court plots against him.
With his considerable dramatis personae, “Edward II” proves to be a good opportunity to show off the fresh ensemble of the Volkstheater, as well as the technical abilities of the stage. Minimal costumes and props – including a tub and a throne – vibrate in electric pinks and purples against the black expanse of the neon-lit stage, whose frequent rotations facilitate uninterrupted entry and exit for two hours without intermission.
“Edward II” is the first of 15 premieres the house has planned for this season, featuring works by George Orwell and Oscar Wilde and several new plays. Yet the company’s repertoire draws heavily on the classics, from Shakespeare to fundamental German works.
A brilliantly performed chamber version of “Confessions by Felix Krull, Confidence Man” by Thomas Mann is the first cover of the Volkstheater in its new home. Shown in the second smallest theater in the house, the 2011 staging, adapted from the novel by show’s director, Bastian Kraft, is remarkably fresh considering its age. Kraft manages to conjure up the colorful life and globe-trotting adventures of Mann’s charming henchman with limited means.
The cast remains unchanged from ten years ago: Pascal Fligg, Nicola Fritzen and Justin Mühlenhardt give heroic performances, sharing the role of Krull. The three bring the cheeky Trickster to life through a series of swift, witty, and sweaty performances that are triumphs of acting bravery.
“Felix Krull” is one of the classic Volkstheater productions, and it still sells. Things are very different at the Kammerspiele, which builds its repertoire pretty much from scratch. (Almost none of the company’s productions prior to Mundel’s tenure have been selected.) The program includes few famous plays or recognizable titles. Instead, the Kammerspiele is betting on recent and freshly commissioned works by international artists, playwrights and theater collectives.
A young author working in the theater is the Israeli writer Sivan Ben Yishai, whose “Like Lovers Do (Memoirs of Medusa)” recently received its world premiere there. This provocative play is a fierce and uncompromising dramatic treatise on sexual violence, abuse, self-harm and the psychologically damaging expectations placed on girls and women in a sexist society. The poster contains a trigger warning which may be ironic. (“Trigger warnings sell,” one character tells us.)
Fortunately, Pinar Karabulut’s elegantly campy and colorful production does not feature any violence or cruelty. The animated five-member, house-wide cast recites (and occasionally sings) the X-rated dialogue while being decked out in Teresa Vergho’s wacky comic book costumes. The whimsical aesthetic of Karabulut’s dollhouse provides a welcome contrast to the relentless brutality of the room; the irony and dark humor of the production helps the audience through what would otherwise be a night without a break.
Kammerspiele’s formidable ensemble is also at the center of “The Politicians”, a dramatic monologue by Wolfram Lotz. It’s a long poetic manifesto that seems indignant and urgent – although what it means is not always clear. By its incantatory power and rhythmic flow, it can be bewitching on a purely sound level, and its mixture of meaning and nonsense opens up an infinite number of theatrical possibilities.
When it was first performed, part of a Berlin production of “King Lear” at the Deutsches Theater, the entirety of “The Politicians” was entrusted to a single actress; in Munich, director Felicitas Brucker distributes Lotz’s text to three performers. For a little over an hour, Katharina Bach, Svetlana Belesova and Thomas Schmauser declaim the agitated text with white-hot intensity. Performing in secluded cubicles that look like a bedroom, workshop, and kitchen all at once, and whose walls are often teeming with video game-like animation, the nimble actors inject hilarity and worry into their absurd speeches.
The strangest and most wonderful moment of this dizzying evening is when Bach – who delivers the most impressive and unbalanced performance – briefly stops in the middle of a flaming torrent of almost incomprehensible babbling to ask the audience, with frankness. impassive, “Questions?
Based on the evidence to date, the Kammerspiele under Mundel is more interested in the art that asks questions rather than answers. I hope that Munich theater lovers will take up the challenge of discovering the original repertoire that she brings to this house rich in history. By comparison, the more popular and popular Volkstheater, housed in its state-of-the-art home, is in a better position than ever to convince audiences – including those skeptical of a more traditional approach – of its theatrical vision. . .
Edward II. Directed by Christian Stückl. Münchner Volkstheater, until November 25.
Felix Krull. Made by Bastian Kraft. Münchner Volkstheater, until November 6.
Like Lovers Do. Directed by Pinar Karabulut. Münchner Kammerspiele, until November 15.
The politicians. Directed by Felicitas Brucker. Münchner Kammerspiele, until November 24.