Everyone wants to capture the spirit of ‘Cabaret’ in Berlin. The so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ only lasted for a few short years in the German capital, but their legacy lives on almost a century later. Clubbers flock to Berlin to seek out exhilaration and frenzy at some of the most edgy venues in Europe and there are plenty of lively late-night bars dotted around the city centre, although not as louche and raw as in the aftermath of the First World War.
Since reunification in 1990, there has been an upsurge in the number of revue and variety shows in Berlin, a form of entertainment that first blossomed towards the end of the 19th Century and which reached heady heights in the 1920s and early 1930s. Many of these shows have broad international appeal and don’t require any knowledge of German. The Wintergarten Varieté Theater on Potsdamer Strasse mixes acrobats, magicians, comedy, live music and dance and the result is a high-energy cocktail of top variety entertainment. There is also definitely more than a whiff of the glitz and glamour of the past.
The current Wintergarten extravaganza is called “Staunen” (“Amazement”) and it is a truly awesome show. We went along last Saturday night and loved it. From the moment we entered the theatre, we let the vaudeville atmosphere take over and suspended disbelief. Greeted in the foyer by a colourful drag artist, we were invited to have our photograph taken, then shown to our seat at one of the scores of tables that fill the plush red velvet and dark wood auditorium.
In the tradition of variety theatre, you can eat and drink while you watch the show and there was a bell on the table to summon waiting staff before and during the performance. Some people had ordered a package which included dinner before the show and were already in party mood. When the house lights faded, a glittering canopy of stars appeared above us and a live band struck up. The compère appeared from the side of the stage wearing top hat and tails, recalling Joel Gray’s iconic role in ‘Cabaret’. He was accompanied by a modern-day Marlene Dietrich and together they guided us through proceedings with consummate ease and great songs which slid seamlessly from German, to French and to English.
The individual variety acts included superlative acrobats, equilibrists, a strong man, a tightrope cyclist, an incredible duo of magicians and the usual clowns. There were literally breath-taking moments and the intimate nature of the theatre had everyone sitting on the edge their seats, enthralled. The glamour of the show was even echoed in the cloakroom facilities which were as incredible as the stage-sets.
The Wintergarten is a theatre with long tradition. Framed photographs of artists who have appeared there over the years are on every wall and down the sides of aisles are display cases with costumes and props.
Its history goes back to 1887, when a variety theatre was opened in a conservatory (in German: Wintergarten) at the Hotel Central in Friedrichstraße. On one evening in 1895, rather than acrobats and exotic dancers on stage, the theatre hosted a world première: the Skladanowsky brothers presented the sensational new art of cinematography and showed the first-ever commercial screening of a film. In the 1920s the Wintergarten was synonymous with the Roaring Twenties, presenting a series of stunning revue and variety shows.
During the Second World War, it was severely damaged and in 1944 the theatre had to close. But the name and spirit of the Wintergarten lived on, and in 1992 a new Wintergarten theatre opened in Potsdamer Straße on a site that had previously been home to the ‘Club Quartier Latin’, a venue associated with Berlin punk band concerts in the 1970s and 80s. The Wintergarten website has all the details of its forthcoming programme, which include vaudeville dinners and burlesque shows. ‘Staunen’ runs until 24th February.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. If you love the theatre but don’t speak German, you can still enjoy world-class drama in Berlin – with the help of English surtitles. The German word for theatre is spelt ‘Theater’ – and can be singular or plural. There are scores of good Theater in Berlin, but my two favourites are the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin and the Schaubühne in West Berlin. Their productions are usually outstanding and they each have a loyal following which makes for a buzzing atmosphere. But perhaps most important, I can take English-speaking friends along when there are English surtitles. You only have to check out each of their websites for the dates of these selected performance dates, usually at weekends.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. A scene from Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, 2015
The Deutsches Theater is on Schumannstraβe in East Berlin, not far from Friedrichstraße Station, just around the corner from the Boros Bunker. It was built in 1850 and started life as the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Städtisches Theater, named after Frederick William IV of Prussia, when it was used mainly for operettas. In 1883, the Deutsches Theater was founded as an ensemble-based repertory company to promote German language and literature. Otto Brahm, the first Director, favoured Naturalist plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, August Strindberg und Arthur Schnitzler, then the legendary Max Reinhardt took over in 1905, and during his era the Deutsches Theater soon earned the reputation of being Germany’s top stage. Reinhardt fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and his former assistant steered the theatre through the Nazi period. During the GDR years, the Deutsches Theater was the most daring and experimental theatre in East Berlin and on November 4th 1989, actors from the Deutsches Theater helped organise the largest protest demonstration in East German history at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz – a pivotal event in the fall of the Berlin Wall five days later. The current Artistic Director of the Deutsches Theater, Ulrich Khuon, has recently had his contract extended until 2022.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Deutsches Theater
Behind its classical façade, the Deutsches Theater is home to three stages: the main stage, built in 1850, with an auditorium that seats 600; the ‘Kammerspiele’, established by Reinhardt in 1906 for modern drama, which holds 230 spectators; and the ‘Box’, a compact black box located in the Kammerspiele foyer, which opened in 2006. With seating for 80, this is an intimate venue for contemporary plays with topical themes. The Deutsches Theater repertoire comprises about 50 productions. Each season sees about 30 premieres, with English surtitles for all the productions on the main stage. Last month, I went to see the ‘Marat-Sade’ by Peter Weiss at the Deutsches Theater, which first opened in the Schiller Theater in West Berlin in 1964. This a hard-hitting affair, telling the bloody story of Marat’s notorious death at the hands of Charlotte Corday in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The action takes place in a lunatic asylum and de Sade struts about the stage shouting directions and defending his individualism. There was genuinely never a dull moment with live music, a delinquent chorus and plenty of naturalistic horror in the ‘grand guignol’ style, where the actors appeared as surreal puppets. The audience loved it – and I spotted plenty of English-speakers following the translation above the stage. There’s still a chance to catch this production on Sunday July 9th.
Curtain call at the end of Marat-Sade
The Schaubühne (literally meaning ‘show stage’) has a completely different look to the Deutsches Theater and is a very West Berlin post-war institution, attracting audiences from the well-healed suburbs around the Kurfürstendamm. This is not to say that its productions are any less avant-garde – far from it. The building itself is a conversion of the Universum Cinema, designed by the modernist architect Erich Mendelssohn in 1928, who also fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Heavily damaged in World War II, it was rebuilt and re-opened as a cinema and then a dance hall. The building’s current use as a theatre dates from the late 1970s, when the Schaubühne ensemble from Kreuzberg, directed by Peter Stein, was looking for a new home. Stein was strongly influenced by the 1968 German student movement and his productions won favour with the critics, if not the West Berlin politicians. In 1999, Thomas Ostermeier took over as artistic director and in recent years, the theatrical repertoire has focused not only contemporary plays, but included many ground-breaking interpretations of classic works. The Schaubühne showcases its productions all over the world. Their production of ‘Enemy of the People’ by Ibsen was seen in no fewer than in 30 countries and in February 2017, ‘Beware of Pity’ by Stefan Zweig came to the Barbican in London and was a sell-out.
Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Ku’damm
Like the Deutsches Theater, the Schaubühne is keen to attract English-speaking theatre-goers and they include English surtitles on selected performances for all their main productions and provide surtitles for French speakers on other evenings. Since 2000, this theatre, with its strong social conscience, has also hosted a series of monthly political panel discussions called ‘Streitraum’ (‘space for argument’). I have been along to a couple of these and discovered that they are more or less conducted simultaneously in German and English. If you are thinking of trying out a play with surtitles at the Schaubühne, I can recommend their current production of Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. It is an absolute tour de force by the excellent company of actors resident at this theatre. The plot centres around a Jewish doctor at a prestigious private clinic who refuses to allow a Catholic priest into the room of a dying patient to administer the last rites, but it widens into an exploration of how elusive truth becomes when it is manipulated by opposing sides and delivers almost three hours of gripping theatre. Just the ticket in our post-truth era.
Scene from Professor Bernhardi. Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin.
Both the Deutsches Theater and the Schaubühne take a break for a few weeks over the summer. You can already book for September at the Schaubühne and the Deutsches Theater publishes their schedule for the 2017/18 season on 1st August. It is best to email or call the theatre to book seats for productions with surtitles to make sure that you have seats where you can see the words clearly. Ticket prices are so reasonable and it is also worth mentioning that both theatres have good bar facilities – in summer, there’s plenty of seating space outside as well. ‘Verweile doch!’ (Stay a while! – a famous quote from Goethe’s Faust).