26 June 2023
LONELY LIVES [EINSAME MENSCHEN] (Deutsches Theater, Berlin) Review
Having never seen a Hauptmann’s play, I jumped at the chance to see this production whilst in Berlin, doubly so because it had English surtitles, so I would be sure to enjoy the full experience.
Having braved a 3-hour show with no intermission the night before, this 3-hour production with an interval was going to be a breeze. Unfortunately, the auditorium was absolutely boiling, and no amount of water or fanning was making it better. By the end of the show I was fully expecting to have had a heat stroke. I genuinely have no idea how the actors manage it on stage…
In any case, the basic set-up (no spoilers, not to worry) is a seemingly vanilla family drama. Johannes and Käthe are married and just had a baby. Johannes is moping around more so than helping (as his writing career appears to have stalled), so his mother, Eva, has come to stay with them at their lakehouse to help out. The baby’s Christening is attended by Johannes’ old-time friend Sophie, who, in turn, ends up inviting her friend Arno to the festivities. The couple like Arno and ask him to stick around for a few extra days. What could possibly go wrong?..
The staging had lots of things to feast your eyes on. Some I liked a lot; others a bit less.
Firstly there were things on stage that punctuated the production. We had the baby. I won’t give away how the couple’s baby is presented on stage, but I haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s cute and clever, but I couldn’t decide if I actually liked it. If nothing else, it was different… Then we had the balloons that Käthe went around popping. It may have meant to underscore her displeasure and/or boredom, but it made me smirk, as every pop was immensely satisfying. There were also one or two yoga balls that were used for chairs. That I didn’t get at all, and it seemed rather odd and out of sync with the rest of the furniture.
And then there was an inflatable boat leaning on the wall… Given that Johannes and Käthe live in a house on a lake, you’d think that the proverbial Checkhov’s gun would present itself by way of someone taking said boat to the lake before the play is over. Whilst that certainly does happen, turns out this was a new take on the adage: if there is an inflatable boat on stage i the first act, someone will definitely have sex in it in the second…
There was also some “rain” on stage. Although water has a lot of relevance and symbolism in this play (more on that below), including more or less everyone in the house drowining in their own issues an emotions, having water pour down from above is so used, abused, and overused in London, I dread seeing it. I thought they could’ve done just fine without it, but my companion thought it was a nice touch.
The stage also featured a tall staircase with a sink in the top, a bit like an open bathroom. At one point, when things come to a head for Käthe, the sink spills over. The inference is pretty obvious and rather in your face, but the way the water was set to flow down the stairs was spectacular. The visual result of how it was directed was tremendously beautiful. It was stunning to look at and wasn’t gratuitous, so I sat there and revelled in it. Of course, predictably, the sentiment was ruined slightly when Käthe tried to stem the tide by taking off her top (ok, lots of soft fabric there, maybe tying it over the taps could stop the water), then her skirt (a bit weird, but sure, lots of soft fabric too), and then the pantyhose (ok, there are no circumstances under which those would help with a busted pipe).
Also, additional things appear on set toward the end of the play (won’t say more so not to ruin it). It was surprising and, presumably, was intended to highlight how people reflect on themselves, their own actions, and the actions of others. I liked it as an idea, but what I didn’t like was that one half was black, and the other one was white. Nothing in this play is clearcut, and so it felt a bit judgy, like the director was trying to hint at who/what we should think is right and who/what is wrong.
Lastly, there’s the bit that’s probably the most unexpected and/or controversial in the play. The show was advertised as having some explicit nudity. Allow me to elaborate: the second act starts with a 15 minute naked sex scene. I mean seriously explicit and naked, so much so that the front row probably got far more than they bargained for. Was it really necessary? I’m not sure. Did it need to be that long? Probably not. Some parts of it were very awkward, though my companion thought it was done that way intentionally to highlight that having sex with someone for the first time could be rather like that. What annoyed me the most about this scene was that it (or, perhaps the director) seemed undecided about what the scene wanted to be. Parts of it were sympathetic and almost heartwarming. But then it flipped in and out of comedy schtick where, every time the music started playing, the people would just start taking their clothes off anew with that “whether we want to or not” look. For me to buy into the premise, it needed to be either-or, but not both. (Incidentally, the song that played during sex was Baker Knight’s “Lonesome Town”. My companion thought it was sensibly reflective of the theme of loneliness, which is true, but I struggled to keep my mind from drifting to “Pulp Fiction”.)
I quite liked the cast, if I’m honest. No one in particular stood out, but they seemed to be well-matched as an ensemble. Marcel Kohler (Johannes) was probably the favourite of the night as a writer who lost his mojo. Linn Reusse (Käthe) showed off nicely how dramatically things fall apart when one is locked inside’s one’s head. Judith Hofmann (Eva) was almost ornamental, and I wanted to see more from her than incessant scolding. Franziska Machens (Sophiie) was largely a plot device to bring Arno into the story. Her character isn’t much to write home about, and I actually thought the story may’ve flown more smoothly if she had been written out entirely (e.g., Arno comes looking for her, but she already left). Lastly, Enno Trebs (Arno) has a fairly demanding physical role, which I thought he managed quite well, but I wanted to see more emotion from him.
Daniela Löffner, who directed, has an impressive list of productions to her name. I thought her staging, on balance, was enjoyable, if a bit uneven. It would be interesting to see another production of hers at some point.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £6.