“The Reunification of the Two Koreas”: Berliner Ensemble

Hans-Jürgen Bartsch in Berlin

Last November, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, one of Berlin’s oldest playhouses in the historic city centre, a stone’s throw from the river Spree, celebrated its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary. Since it opened in 1892, it quickly became a popular venue for theatregoers, not only because of its opulently decorated auditorium in neo-baroque style (which miraculously survived the bombings in the last war), but also on account of the premieres of celebrated plays such as Gerhart

Hauptmann’s The Weavers in 1893 and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in 1928. Since Brecht installed his Berliner Ensemble there in 1954, it has become one of Berlin’s best-known theatres.

The Berliner Ensemble started the 2017/18 season under new management. Succeeding Claus Peymann, who was at its helm for eighteen years, Oliver Reese took over as artistic director. He announced a “decidedly contemporary programme” of works that “address the issues of our complex, conflict-ridden, and divided world?


Part of the ensemble in The Reunification of the Two Koreas.
Photo credit: Birgit Hupfeld.


Most members of the ensemble are newcomers, many recruited from the Schauspiel Frankfurt which Reese ran before coming — or, rather, returning — to Berlin. He had worked here as an associate director (Chefdramaturg) for 15 years, first at the Maxim Gorki and then at the Deutsches Theater.

Several productions billed as “Berlin premieres” are transfers from Frankfurt. One of them is Die Wiedervereinigung der beiden Koreas (The Reunification of the Two Koreas) by Joël Pommerat, a French playwright very much in vogue in his home country. La Rèunification des deux Corées, staged by Pommerat himself, opened at the Théâtre Odéon-Berthier in Paris five years ago and was revived during the 2014/15 season, playing to full houses throughout both runs. When I saw it there, the performance lasted an hour and 50 minutes. Reese, who faithfully renders the whole of the original text (in an excellent translation by Isabelle Rivoal), keeps us in our seats for almost three hours — but at a price. Several scenes feel padded out, others are less absorbing than I remember them from Pommerat’s own production in Paris.

The title is misleading. This is not a political play about a future merger of the antagonistic countries occupying the Korean peninsula. In the conventional sense, it is not really a play. There is no continuous story line. What we get here is a succession of nineteen unconnected short scenes — some of them lasting no longer than a few minutes — on the subject of love, or, rather, on the complexity of the notion and the difficulty of defining it. Pommerat explores the diverse sentiments in amorous relationships — affection, passion, devotion, compassion, lechery — and the misconceptions that lead to disenchantment, discord, or even fiasco.

To make sense of the puzzling title, we have to wait for the episode in Scene Fifteen about a husband visiting his wife in a care home for patients suffering from dementia. From the formal and reserved welcome she gives her visitor it is obvious that she is lost in oblivion and doesn’t recognise him. Patiently trying to

resuscitate her faded memory, he reminds her of their marriage of seventeen years and their two children, whereupon she baffles him with the question “Have we slept together?” His ironic reply (“Yes, twice, like North and South Korea being reunited’) contains the pointer to Pommerat’s peculiar choice of title. Corinna Kirchhoff as the disoriented wife and Till Weinheimer as her distressed husband who painfully realises he has lost her for good make this one of the evening’s most heart-rending scenes.

Most of the nineteen mini-dramas take place in front of a long wood-panelled wall with six doors resembling a hotel corridor. For some scenes the panels are folded down to reveal a sitting room, a bed chamber, a doctor’s surgery, or a headmistress’ office (stage design: Hansjörg Hartung). A cast of nine actors, all at the top of their game, shoulder the parts of fifty-odd characters, constantly oscillating between tragedy, melodrama, comedy, and farce. Pommerat’s talent for alleviating mournful situations with subtle – and occasionally not so subtle – humour is manifest throughout the evening.

The opening scene sets the tone for the evening. A married woman with three grown-up children (Corinna Kirchhoff) proclaims her resolve to divorce her husband of twenty years because “there is no love between us”. Questioned by her marriage counsellor (a voice from offstage) how this lack of love manifests itself, she laconically replies: “lt doesn’t”.

To give you an idea of the great variety of situations, here is a selection. A woman (Franziska Junge) walks out on her unsuspecting husband (Veit Schubert) in the middle of the night because “love is not enough? A motherly mother (Josefin Platt) declares war on her husband (Martin Rentzsch) for allowing their son to join the army. A cleaning lady (Carina Zichner) complains to her squad about her boorish fiancé, unaware of his corpse dangling from the ceiling in the very room they are cleaning. A childless couple (Veit Schubert and Corinna Kirchhoff), whose marriage is held together by their invention of an imaginary toddler son, hire a babysitter (Verena Bukal) whom, when returning home from a social function, they accuse of having lost him. A pregnant, mentally handicapped girl (Carina Zichner, offering the most touching performance of the evening) staunchly refuses to consent to an abortion. A vicar (Till Weinheimer), anxious to finish his liaison with a prostitute (Verena Bukal) who had naively mistaken it for true love, tries to regain his freedom by offering her “compensation for loss of earnings”. The panorama of amorous relationships enters the domain of pure comedy — even verging on farce — when a bride (Franziska Junge) discovers that the bridegroom (Till Weinheimer) had flirted with each and every one of her four sisters. Following a noisy and hilariously funny wrangle, all hell breaks loose and she sends him packing. The registrar never gets to see the couple.

The evening ends with a French chanson about the wonders of amour, delivered by Josefin Platt with the proficiency of a trained songstress. Given the shortage of loving and lasting relationships in Pommerat’s panorama, concluding it with a love song confirms the author’s fine sense of irony.

In 1935 — two years after Hitler seized power — the American novelist, dramatist, and journalist Sinclair Lewis published a novel in which he imagined the rise of a populist rabble-rouser and narcissistic boaster who wins the presidential election and turns the country into a tyrannical rogue state. Last year, It Can ‘t Happen Here was reprinted and became a bestseller in the United States.

Although the novel has been translated into German (Das ist bei uns nichr mögiich), the stage version which Christopher Rüping presents at the Kammerspiele, Deutsches Theater’s small auditorium, is billed under the original English title. Rüping devised a glitzy variety show that takes great liberty with the original, to put it mildly.

Lewis’ visionary and topical tale has been translated into bustling activity and deafening music (by Christoph Hart) which – as if it wasn’t blaring enough — is amplified by the frequent intervention of a percussionist (Matze Pröllochs), raising the decibel level close to the legal limit.


Part of the ensemble in The Reunification of the Two Koreas.
Photo credit: Birgit Hupfeld.


Felix Goeser as the would-be president Buzz Windrip is dressed in a ridiculous tiger-patterned outfit that makes him look like an ageing rock star (costumes: Lene Schwind). He bellows rousing speeches into a microphone, frisks about the stage to Christoph Hart’s rock and rap numbers, and storms up and down a metal staircase that dominates the stage (design Julian Marbach). He boasts of having no education and never reading books (“Life has been my school”) and proclaims his ambition to exercise absolute power (“Congress will not be allowed to adopt any measure without my OK”). Lee Sarason (Michael Goldberg), Windrip’s campaign manager and strategist, later on his short-lived successor, is as ruthless as his boss. He rails against the press and threatens all opponents with prosecution for disobedience.

Alas, in Rüping’s staging these men come across as clownish entertainers rather than menacing as clownish entertainers rather than menacing and intimidating miscreants.

Occasionally there is an attempt at humour, as when Windrip throws an inauguration party and invites the audience onto the stage for a snack of vegetarian hotdogs (I counted thirteen spectators who followed the invitation; an estimated twenty portions went back to the caterer). Hilarity subsides when a jingoistic colonel (Benjamin Lillie) puts an end to the reign of the jumping jacks: he stages a putsch, orchestrates Windrip’s assassination, and takes over as the country’s Führer.

This rumpus is quite evidently intended to attract young spectators, and it did. The youngsters in the audience, clearly the majority, loved it. Only once, when a journalist (Camill Jammal) is savagely tortured and then sentenced to death, does gimmicky entertainment give way to an earnest treatment of Lewis’ gruesome tale. The rest is  … hullabaloo.