“Slippery Slope” – Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin

Hans-Jürgen Bartsch at the Berlin Theatertreffen festival

 

In 2020 and 2021, the annual Theatertreffen festival had fallen victim to repeated Corona-induced lockdowns, compelling it to cancel live performances and resorting to live-streaming of the productions it had intended to present on stage. This year it welcomed audiences again. During the 17-day event in May, some 18.000 spectators attended performances of the ten “remarkable” productions that a jury of seven drama critics had selected from the plays they had watched – in person or via live-streaming – during the last season in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

In several respects, this year’s Theatertreffen (the 59th edition since its inception in West Berlin in 1964), was different from the previous festivals. Nine of the invited ten productions originated on German stages, including one from Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater and an international co-production involving theatres in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt and Manchester. Vienna’s Volkstheater was the only one representing Austria, and no Swiss theatre had been invited.

The programme was dominated by collective creations and re-imagined or freely adapted plays. The only German classic, Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 romantic tragedy Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans) from Mannheim’s Nationaltheater, was presented in a reworked version “after” Schiller. Four of the invited productions were announced with English titles (Slippery Slope, All right. Good night, Like Lovers Do, and Doughnuts), which seemed peculiar for a festival that claims to serve as a showcase for German-language theatre. What’s more, Slippery Slope from Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater was performed entirely in English, with German surtitles projected onto the proscenium arch!

In 2019, only two of the invited productions were directed by women. To redress this gender imbalance, the organizers had decided to introduce a quota: henceforth half of the productions to be invited will have to be staged by women. Apparently, the jury had no problem with that rule: this year, six of the ten “remarkable” productions boasted a female director. Why until 2019 so few “remarkable” productions directed by women have been considered worthy of an invitation to the festival remains a mystery.

 

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The Maxim Gorki Theater’s Slippery Slope is a speech-and-song show created by a four-member team, led by Yael Ronen (who also directs) in collaboration with the musician Shlomi Shaban. The team have subtitled their creation Almost a Musical, to warn their audiences not to expect a musical in the conventional sense. There is in fact no orchestra, and there are no big song-and-dance numbers. What we get here is an imaginatively structured sequence of speeches and songs (composed by Shaban) where the protagonists alternately speak or sing their parts.

They deliver their lines from two sloping catwalks that cross in the middle of the stage like a see-saw (set design: Alissa Kolbusch) – a reminder that in show business the stars tread on a “slippery slope”, always at risk of falling off. That happened to the middle-aged Swedish folk singer Gustav (Lindy Larsson) whose career is in dire straits (“Everything I touch turns into sh*t”). At the peak of his fame 20 years ago, he performed in stadiums before audiences of thousands; now, trying to stage a comeback, he is at pains to attract a few dozen faithful fans.

In an opening song, he presents himself as “the famous Swedish singer songwriter who had it all and lost it all”. In the following hundred minutes we are taken through his career from celebrated leader of an ethno-folk band to lonely solo performer. The story of his downfall is told in retrospect from the perspective of people who have been associated with his career. We quickly realize that their accounts do not always tally with Gustav’s own recollection. At curtain call we are left with an open question: is he himself to blame for his misfortune or has he fallen victim to the power structures of show business which engender intrigue, manipulation, exploitation and jealousy. If this were a criminal trial we would end up as a hung jury.

At the centre of the story is the turbulent relationship between Gustav and Sky (Riah Knight), a young Romani girl whom he befriended and fell in love with when she was a backing singer in his folk band (“I was a junky and Sky was my drug”). On tour, he shared not only the stage, but also numerous hotel bedrooms with her. Charged with “cultural appropriation” for having helped himself generously to Romani, Klezmer, Beduin and other Arabic music without acknowledging his sources and also with exploiting ethnic musicians, he retorts that it was thanks to him that Sky attained stardom.

Sky tells a different story. She admits having been intrigued by him (“He is an amazing musician”). But she soon realized that he was seriously disturbed and unbalanced (“Wild darkness alongside super-charisma”). He called her his inspiration and his muse, while in fact he exploited her (“I was the one writing for him and getting no credit”). She ended the relationship and, when he did not stop calling her, threatened to report him to the police for stalking her. She is now a celebrated pop star under the thumb of her crafty new manager Shantez (Emre Aksizoğlu).

Enter Stanka, a reporter working for a tabloid newspaper (Vidina Popov), who has got wind of the Gustav-Sky scandal and intends to exploit it. Her plan is thwarted, however; Klara, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and the wife Gustav cheated on (Anastasia Gubarewa), intends to go into politics and understandably doesn’t want the scandal to become public. She bribes Stanka into abandoning her project.

The last character to intervene in this complex – and at times confusing – story is Kahn, a career coach who specialises in assisting performing artists in difficulty (Emre Aksizoğlu in a second role). He advises Gustav to go underground until the storm has died down (“The attention span of the public is very short”) and then publish his autobiography (“I’ll take 10 per cent”). Kahn has already thought of a title, Slippery Slope.

What at first sight looks like a critical analysis of the shortcomings of show business is in fact a most enjoyable entertainment, thanks to quick-witted dialogue infused with a good measure of sarcasm and irony, a perfect balance of speeches and songs, wonderful costumes (Amit Epstein), and captivating performances. The five-member cast are superb, both as actors and singers – “remarkable” indeed.