I am no critic and I sure as hell ain’t no theatre critic. Still, I had a theatrical experience so bizarre and inspiring last summer, that I feel an urge to share , however ill equipped I am.
Artistic expression has taken a turn for the boring lately. No one dares stray from the dominant ideology, or from the statistical fascism of the box office. For that reason, amongst others, you could put a gun to my head and I still wouldn’t be seen dead at the theater. But somehow a friend managed to drag me, on a warm summer’s night a few months ago, all the way to Reinickendorf, a neighborhood far outside the “Ring” marking the inhabitable center of Berlin, to see a show. And not just any show, a 12 hour long so called “immersive experience”.
“how is it called?” I asked him.
He didn’t know. “I’m not sure it has a name” he said, and I sighed.
You see I have learned something during my years in Berlin, Europe’s decadent capital. In a city where everyone considers themselves an artist, the art itself, more often than not, is bad and lazy. While democracy is a great thing in the real day to day practical world, it has no place in the arts. Not everyone can be an artist. Berlin, god bless its war torn soul, is very accepting of mediocrity in its art. Putting on an unnamed 12 hour theater piece is hardly a surprisingly original thing to do in this climate.
These “avant-garde” pastiches were already tired in the 80’s and, I beg your forgiveness, but they sure as shit ain’t any better now. But Berlin…. Berlin. It is in love with the 80’s. I digress.
I rolled my eyes. “oh jeez” I said. But my friend, he saw the first half of the show already. He told me “don’t worry it’s not what you think.” So I went.
The show was held in a huge building that seemed to have once been a factory of sorts. Berlin is filled with old factories. Some being reused as public spaces, hosting parties, theater productions or offices for non profits. Others just stand vacant and dark, hosting drifters who use them to hide from the cold, their walls covered with meaningless tags and the occasional beautiful graffito.
We looked for a sign to tell us how to get in. all we could see was a printed A4 saying VINGE-MULLER and an arrow >>>> .
I was not feeling confident.
After a few more minutes’ walk we found the entrance. Next to it, on the parking lot, were picnic tables and a portable kitchen, where pizzas and hamburgers were being sold . I took some coffee, and we waited till somebody would leave the show so we could take their place. I rolled a cigarette and prepared for a long night which could have been spent with greater enjoyment at home masturbating.
My friend put our names on the waiting list, and there we sat, me smoking, him eating pizza, until we were called.
We paid for out tickets, and for the first time I was intrigued, for with the tickets we were given complementary ear plugs.
We went up a flight of stairs, and there, on the second floor. My mouth dropped.
Vegard Vinge and Ida Muller, Sans feces
Castorf ‘The pope Of Berlin Theatre’ near Volksbuhne
Wikipedia states that Vegard Vinge, a Norwegian theater director and actor met his colleague Ida Muller while studying Theater Direction in the UDK, Berlin’s premiere art school. Muller was studying stage design, and they hit it off. Together, since may 2013 they erected bizarre theater pieces in Berlin prestigious Avant garde theater Volksbuhne. Somehow they managed to get even that sophisticated crowd angry when the shows, (at that time extreme, and extremely long adaptations of Henrik Ibsen), lasted 12 hours, had Vinge piss in his mouth on stage, throw shit at the audience and spray the stage manager with a fire extinguisher. later, when he received an angry letter from Frank Castorf, the pope of Berlin theater and head director of Volksbuhne, Vinge read it on stage covered in faeces.
While Vinge’s shock tactics are potent yet simple, it is Mullers stage design that make the theatrical vision whole. Everything on stage is manufactured. It brings to mind French writer and playwright Jean Genet’s saying, that on stage everything must be a metaphor. Must be represented. Never the thing itself. If a character lights a cigarette, the fire must be fake. The Vinge+Muller duo took that to heart. No faces appear on stage. They are covered by amazing grotesque masks. No voices are coming from the stage. The sound of footsteps has been pre recorded and played simultaneous to the action. Dialogue itself does not emanate from the actors on stage, rather from voice actors, speaking through microphones in the back.
Even before reaching the actual stage, I was bombarded with an unimaginable excess of design. A Nazi U boat on my right, on my left hundreds of paintings of football stars from around the world. A statue of a creepy boy with an erection urinating in his mouth. Cartoony posters filled with caricature-like sexy women adorned with swastikas. It was obvious that someone intended to shock me in the most vulgar, tasteless way.
The theatre itself was a complete cartoon palace! Every tiny detail was hand painted. If you were an 80’s kid you might remember the scene in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, where Beetlejuice goes to a whorehouse in the small model of the town built by the Alec Baldwin character. That’s how the theatre looked. On a huge screen on stage played a video of something that looked like a war of Vikings. The players were naked, wearing those masks (dear lord those masks) swinging swords around. Murdering. Raping. Fake blood everywhere!
My friend and I took a seat in the back. What I thought was going to be a boring night at the theatre turned into a night of total immersive decadent joy. The video projection ended, the screen rose. Behind us, a phantom of the opera\slipKnot\Rob Zombie character went to a fake piano and started to play. On top of the stage was written “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome”. I was in the garden of total art. Here were no distinction between right and wrong. I was in Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden. In Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradise. The live show ensued: Deep in a cartoon forest a witch with long hair walks among the tall trees. Slowly and meticulously, one step at a time, the sound of the steps booming from the speakers. It took her around 45 minutes to get to the front of the stage, where she was met by a man in a business suit. For the next 30 minutes they have a conversation, not looking at each other, endlessly reciting a variation of the same sentence over and over again. Nightmarish episodes and images followed. A depressed young adult in his home, angry at his mother. A Family dinner gone awry as the young girl goes on top of the dining table, shitting a huge turd in her father’s plate, and him eating it, mumbling “hmmm.. pretty good. Yes. Yes. good”.
It took my friend to tell me that the show was a strange mix of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ibsen’s Master Builder (I think) and Puccini’s Tosca. That may be. Yet I took the images thrown at me at face value. At some point around 4.30 AM the screen was drawn again over the stage and a live video was screened from way back behind the scenes. It was the last scenes of Puccini’s Tosca. The music was a recording of the opera. The actors moved around the set, mimicking singing under their masks by moving their heads, like dolls. The dramatic scene, where Mario, the protagonist of Tosca, is being shot, was replayed live around 7 times.
My heart raced. The music and the photography of the scene, acted live behind the curtain was virtuoso. I turned to my friend and told him “fuck man! This is the best movie I’ve ever seen!” he told me to chill and not exaggerate. I pretended I did. But I didn’t. When Mario was shot, a hand from behind the camera with huge ketchup squeeze-bottle covered him with blood. When Tosca Flung herself off of the roof, that same ketchup bottle was used again with such joy, like little kids reenacting their favourite scene from a horror movie.
The show was nearing its end. A landscape of volcanoes appeared on stage. A man or a woman on top of the volcano was pretending to sing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from an old recording. After that, another live video. This time, from the U-Boat in the lobby. A sexy woman was walking around there. At 6 am the show ended. Not many people were still in the audience. The applause, though excited and admiring was sparse. We were all exhausted. A grumpy masked monster man came to bid us farewell and give us a present. A vinyl of one of the songs sung by Ophelia, Hamlet’s doomed admirer. Ich Will Gehorchen. I want to obey.
I was pooped (no pun intended) after the show. I went home as the sun was rising and slept.
The experience of the Vinge-Muller production is gone forever from the world. Who knows, it may play again in some festival somewhere. But the experience I had exists now only in my imagination. I remember some pieces with more clarity and others not at all. I remember that the music in one of the scenes was taken from Goblin’s soundtrack to Suspiria. Or maybe it was the theme of John Carpenter’s Halloween?
The ending of Tosca (which I’ve listened to many time after that) now reminds me of late summer nights, just like the ending of the Rocky Horror Picture Show used to remind me of the same when I was in high school. More importantly, a vulgar, violent visual style I admire has been adapted to the stage, without the ironic touch that is usually needed to make it acceptable.
Vegard Vinge and Ida Muller show us that so called High Dramatic art is still about people, and people’s experiences. And people, at the end of the day, are sacks of blood and shit, that can also sing.