Thursday, 19 February 2009

Berlin - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]

If I didn’t object to people saying what is and isn’t theatre, I’d be tempted to say Berlin isn’t theatre at all. Really, it’s more like of a lecture, or one of those “An Audience With...”s. Except this one has a director attached in the form of long-time Hare collaborator Stephen Daldry. And it’s got a set of sorts: a snazzy bar stool on a raised circular dais.

The subject of the talk is nominally Berlin. The real subject of the talk is David Hare and some of David Hare’s thoughts about Berlin, among other things. It is rather like someone wealthy, middle class and left-wing reading you their holiday diaries (Hare does in fact have the entire script on a clipboard) crossed with a staged advert for Hare’s adaptation of The Reader (also directed by Stephen Daldry).

The success of the show largely depends on how palatable/appealing you find the idea of David Hare speaking his mind to you. Live! There is a degree of self-importance, not to mention a dizzying sense of entitlement, which is pretty hard to stomach. Here is someone who has decided that his opinions are so worthwhile that he is going to charge people money to sit and listen to them for the better part of an hour. And this time he hasn’t even bothered turning his thoughts into a play. And he’s reading them himself.

This last decision is perhaps the most curious. David Hare’s stage persona is oddly suggestive of Alan Bennett in a wig taking the piss out of the idea of David Hare. Except that Hare is not a natural performer. He over-emphasises odd words. He comes down way too hard on punchlines. He often adopts a tone of voice, posture and facial expression that appears impossibly pained and self-righteous. He stares at us in the audience after he has made what he considers to be a profound point. It comes across as if he daftly believes he is being “confrontational”. Or that he is the first person to have spotted, for example, that Nazism wasn’t nice. On the other hand, he can also be quite affable, charming and witty. He has a nice line in self-deprecation, but one which is undercut by a much broader streak of thinking he’s definitely right about things and being impossibly smug to boot.

The central plank of Hare’s Berlin is that he doesn’t get the place as a city. His friends are all telling him how great it is, and how he should buy a flat in Kreuzberg, but he just isn’t feeling it. It’s not all he doesn’t get. The piece starts by him describing being booed by a German audience who had just watched one of his plays. Rarely have I felt more fondly toward the Germans. He goes on to describe the production in tones of mock horror – their set for the railway station he had written hadn’t looked anything like the actual railway station he meant! And it had had some youths on stage dressed in leather playing on a pinball machine in an oak-panelled waiting room! Quelle horreur! It sounded like a pretty good production to me, and Hare’s deadly, literalist objections only serve to make him sound like someone who doesn’t make much of an effort to *get* other ways of doing things.

He pootles around for a while talking about adapting The Reader, giving a few insights into his work and his thinking ("if you don't know how you'll adapt something immediately, you'll never know" is one such pearl of, uh, wisdom) and interspersing this with anecdotes from various visits he’s made to Berlin and accounts of key moments from Berlin’s post-war history. He’s probably at his funniest when talking about his attitude to actors (paraphrased: “yes, I know it’s in the book, but I’ve changed it, because a book is different to a film”), or relating funny things actors have said to him (one, on shooting Valkyrie: “I’m currently playing a Nazi officer in a film about the plot to assassinate David Bamber”).

In the end, he finally *does* get Berlin – at least to his satisfaction (and he’s David Hare so he’s always right, right?). Apparently it’s a place where groups of friends can hang out and chat. Hare thinks this is a shame. He misses young people being angry about things. Young people, he says, pretty much directly, ain’t what they used to be. Satisfied with this baffling conclusion, Hare heads off to the airport where he bumps into some of his friends in the departure lounge. He finds it convivial and nice and reflects that if he bought a place in Berlin he’d miss seeing his friends in the departure lounge as often.

In conclusion, David Hare seems to have turned into the kind of Kingsley Amis travel writer who uses other nations and cultures to narrow their horizons and confirm to themselves that they were right all along; exposure to other ideas and ways of doing things only serves to confirm this. Despite the good jokes (which is by no means all the jokes) and the sometimes likeable manner, I can’t help wishing I’d been in an audience of Germans booing at the end.
________________________________________Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

3 comments:

Richard Hurst said...

"Rarely have I felt more fondly toward the Germans."

I don't believe you.

Jana said...

Wonderful piece of writing, Andrew.

artista povera said...

I too saw this talk and while I found bits of it entertaining, I ended up feeling he had still missed the point of Berlin. I was there at Christmas - fantastich.
Wish I had the money to buy a flat in Kreutzberg. But I'd rather be more like the Germans and rent anyway. Secretly glad that Herr Hare's not moving in - we don't want it ending up like the Dordogne or Tuscany