Backstage drama rocks fabled Berlin theater

By Yannick Pasquet ,AFP

BERLIN — Berlin’s world-class theater scene, known for its audacity and innovation, is facing a tempestuous season as the cash-strapped German capital debates how much high culture it can bankroll. The surprise announcement that the veteran artistic director of east Berlin’s legendary Volksbuehne (People’s Stage), Frank Castorf, would be bowing out in 2017 after a quarter century at the helm sent a jolt through the once-divided city. Berlin authorities, who heavily subsidize the avant-garde theater and Castorf’s daring, politically charged productions, declined to keep the strong-willed iconoclast much beyond the end of his current contract in 2016. Talks are underway to find a director of the theater, which was founded in 1914 to entertain the city’s working class. The name that keeps surfacing is Chris Dercon, the current director of London’s Tate Modern, an option not popular with everyone in Berlin’s sometimes fractious artistic community. The debate has exposed serious tensions between the headstrong leaders of the city’s cultural institutions and the coalition government of new mayor Michael Mueller, in office since December.

It is no accident that the Volksbuehne has become the lightning rod in the dispute. Rebuilt after World War II in an imposing Stalinist style using remnants of Hitler’s destroyed chancellery, the Volksbuehne prides itself on caustic commentary on political and capitalist hypocrisy.

Critics wonder whether the Belgium-born director of a London art museum can bring the radical sensibility and awareness of Berlin’s tumultuous history that is woven into the fabric of the theater. Castorf, 63, was a prominent artist in communist East Germany before taking the reins of the Volksbuehne in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His stagings are often bold, controversial and lengthy, and during his nearly 25 years at the Volksbuehne, it has become one of Europe’s leading theaters.