“Michael Kohlhaas”: Schaubühne (Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz)

Hans-Jürgen Bartsch in Berlin
17 June 2021


Simon McBurney, the co-founder of the British theatre company Complicité and an internationally renowned director, made his Berlin debut at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz with a stage adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas, published in 1810 but based on recorded events that occurred back in the 1530s. Kleist recounts the story of the horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas who suffers great wrong at the hands of the squire of a castle, takes the law into his own hands and, when he fails to obtain justice, decides to take revenge. Resorting to increasingly violent action, he ends up as what we now call a terrorist.


Renato Schuch and ensemble. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola.


True to his belief in teamwork, McBurney created the adaptation together with his long-time collaborator Annabel Arden, the Schaubühne’s dramaturg (assistant director) Maja Zade, and the seven members of the ensemble. Their collective effort resulted in an imaginative staging of Kleist’s narrative. There is no scenery; the stage is empty save for a row of free-standing microphones by the footlights, a desk in the corner for the operator of a video camera, and some chairs along the rear wall to where the actors retire when they are not “on”. Except for Renato Schuch in the lead role of Kohlhaas, the actors, uniformly dressed in grey suits and shirts, take turns playing the different protagonists, frequently changing from one role to another.

Lined up behind the microphones, they start the evening by reciting passages from the novella at great speed, often reading out only half a sentence and leaving it to their neighbour to add the other half. To illustrate the texts, they imitate corresponding sounds such as blasts of wind or the neighing of horses and the clip-clopping of their hooves. Following this original prelude, they switch into full acting mode, guiding us through the horrifying tale of Kohlhaas’ crusade, starting with the day when on his way to a market in Dresden he is fined for entering the territory of a Burggraf (governor of a castle) without a valid permit – a trumped-up charge, as it turns out – and is forced to surrender two of his horses and his servant as security.

Returning from the Saxon capital, Kohlhaas finds his animals emaciated and maltreated and his servant (Robert Beyer) a bloodstained cripple. He sues the squire for damages, but a bribed judge dismisses his claim. His wife (Genija Rykova) tries to petition the Kurfürst (Prince Elector) of Saxony to revoke the unfair decision, but she is viciously assaulted by a palace guard and dies of her injuries. This is when Kohlhaas decides to resort to violent rebellion. Vengeance becomes an uncontrollable obsession. He returns to the castle and, discovering that the squire has absconded, ransacks the residence, whereupon he recruits a private army of four hundred men and attacks the town of Wittenberg where he suspects his enemy to be hiding. Unable to get hold of him, he returns to his native Brandenburg. In the meantime, his tormentor has secretly plotted with his aristocratic relations in Berlin to have Kohlhaas incarcerated and sentenced to death. He is already being led to the guillotine when he is informed that his lawsuit against the squire has been successful on appeal, his servant will receive compensation, and his horses are now well-fed and in good health.


Renato Schuch and ensemble. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola.


Contrary to what we have witnessed in Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper, there is no happy ending here because Kohlhaas, satisfied that justice has at last been done, willingly submits to his execution and is beheaded. The happenings in the final scene risk mystifying spectators, particularly those who are not well acquainted with Kleist’s novella. While Kohlhaas is awaiting his execution, the Elector of Saxony appears in disguise, and an old woman, a fortune-teller, hands Kohlhaas an amulet which contains a piece of paper with secret information on the Elector’s dubious dealings and her prophesy of his downfall. If Kohlhaas had made it public, it would have saved his life. Instead, he takes the paper out of the amulet and swallows it, sealing his fate – an uncompromising fanatic to the end.

Otherwise, this transfer from book to stage is never less than riveting. To bring the events to life on a stage bare of any decor and props posed a formidable challenge. McBurney and Arden and their team have met it to stunning effect with a minimalist but greatly imaginative acting style, exemplified in a scene where two actors (Laurenz Laufenberg and Moritz Gottwald), embodying the exhausted and maltreated horses, drag themselves onto the stage on all fours with crutches attached to their forearms (costumes: Moritz Junge). The video designer (Luke Halls) also deserves an accolade. On a huge screen and several smaller ones we follow the protagonists live in close-up throughout the two-hour evening, and we also get to see picture-postcard views of the landscapes Kohlhaas crossed on his crusade. ‎