Hans-Jürgen Bartsch in Berlin
Since Peter Stein’s legendary staging of Three Sisters in 1984, remembered above all for the magnificent sets – the meticulously furnished interior of a country mansion and the naturalistic reconstruction of a birch grove for the outdoor scenes – the Schaubühne has played a major role in promoting Anton Chekhov’s dramatic work in Berlin. I cannot remember any season when none of his plays was on show at a Berlin theatre, public or private.
Alina Vimbai Strähler as Nina and Joachim Meyerhoff as Trigorin.
Photo credit: Gianmarco Bresadola.
I was reminded of the birch grove when I caught sight of the set for the revival of Die Möwe (The Seagull), the Schaubühne’s last major production before the summer recess. Thomas Ostermeier, at the helm of the theatre since 1999, does not only direct it; in cooperation with Jan Pappelbaum, his long-standing set designer, he has also devised the impressive stage scenery: a true-to-life replica of an enormous plane tree with the branches spreading sideways over the entire width of the stage, and some over the spectators’ heads into the auditorium which has been transformed into an amphitheatre.
All scenes, indoor as well as outdoor, are played in front of that tree, and some even on one of its branches. A hotchpotch of garden and picnic chairs and a plastic folding table are the only props. The actors enter and exit through the aisles and occasionally stop to talk to a spectator (“It’s all quite depressing, isn’t it?”). In the programme, this Seagull is announced as a play “by Anton Chekhov in a version by the ensemble, using a translation by Ulrike Zemme”. What we get here is a mise en scène to which both the director and the cast have contributed – the opposite of Regietheater.
We are no longer in the Russian countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. Ostermeier has moved the action to a garden on the outskirts of a German city. Although the protagonists deliver (mostly) Chekhov’s lines, they represent members of today’s bourgeoisie. They smoke e-cigarettes and drink beer out of the bottle. The writer Trigorin (Joachim Meyerhoff) goes angling in swimming trunks. Kostya, the aspiring avant-garde playwright (Laurenz Laufenberg) is sporting slacks and a T-shirt, and his mother Arkadina (Stephanie Eidt) a garish red dress and high-heeled shoes, more fitting for a popular television star than an ageing stage actress. Her brother Pyotr Sorin (Thomas Bading) is wearing an elegant purple suit (costumes: Nehle Balkhausen). Shamrayev, the steward of Sorin’s country estate (David Ruland), has transmuted into the temperamental organiser of a garden party who orders everybody about in typical Berlin slang. At one point, the conversations are drowned out by the deafening noise of a jet plane.
Chekhov’s advice that The Seagull should be read as a comedy has been taken to its extreme: the play has been transformed into popular entertainment for our times. The acting often veers to caricature and gimmick, and exuberant hilarity overshadows the more subtle irony and sarcasm with which Chekhov mocks the characters’ afflictions: their fear of ending an unfulfilled life and their suffering from the unrequited love, or affection, they invest in the wrong persons – Kostya in Nina, Shamrayev’s daughter Masha (Hêvîn Tekin) in Kostya, his unhappy wife (İlknur Bahadır) in Dr Dorn (Axel Wandtke), and Nina in Trigorin.
Stephanie Eidt portrays Arkadina as a self-centred, insensitive woman who is preoccupied with her image and career, but has little regard for her son’s needs or feelings. Kostya tells us that, to demonstrate her celebrity status, she never misses an opportunity to sign open letters to newspapers. The scene where Nina (Alina Vimbai Strähler) – installed on a branch of the tree shrouded by fog – performs the mysterious Weltschmerz drama Kostya has written for her, ends in a mighty quarrel: Arkadina repeatedly interrupts the performance and ridicules the play. She does not even notice that her son is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Quite evidently it is habit rather than passion that ties her to Trigorin – and, as Chekhov suggests, also pride at having conquered a much younger man, a motive that is lost here because Joachim Meyerhoff’s Trigorin is – or looks – much older than Stephanie Eidt’s Arkadina.
Meyerhoff is the star of the evening. He starts off as the rather unobtrusive author who prefers angling to socialising (true to Chekhov) and then (in line with Ostermeier’s staging concept) changes into a garrulous show-off who dominates the stage, boasting about his best-selling novels and his ingenious writing technique: in preparation for his next novel he records impressions, conversations and encounters on little index-cards. In one of the many amusing scenes, he is sitting with Nina at the picnic table sorting out a pile of these cards. Nina had fallen in love with him after breaking up with Kostya. To impress her, Trigorin is prattling non-stop about his fame and success, fortunately with a good measure of irony and sarcasm that renders the monologue highly entertaining. But what attracts Nina to him remains a mystery. If she hoped he would write her the play she yearns for, her hope would certainly be dashed. This is the most un-Chekhovian portrayal of Trigorin I have seen. But the audience loved it. Meyerhoff had them at his feet. At the end of the three-hour performance he was feted with thundering applause.
In the final scene, late at night, Kostya collects a gun he had hidden behind the plane tree and points it at his throat. He quickly takes cover when Trigorin arrives and relieves himself against the tree (not Chekhov’s idea), and Shamrayev walks past with the seagull he had shot and stuffed. When the two have disappeared, we hear a shot.