Friday, 27 May 2011

Betrogen (Betrayal) – Renaissance Theater

[Long, unnecessary intro at the end]

The most surprising about Torsten Fischer's production of Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal, now in rep. at Berlin's Renaissance Theater, is how normal it is.

As it opens two men are playing squash in an exact replica of a squash court, complete with glass 4th wall. On the back of the court, the precise time (20:01:etc 24/5/2011 is projected). The lights go down. The play's title, “Betrogen”, flashes up and the clock winds back the years to 1977 for the first scene of the play as Pink Floyd's Time plays.

It's quite, uh, cinematic.

In a small nod to being German, the entire play turns out to be set in a squash court. Or rather, the set doesn't change. The glass 4th wall does gradually recede throughout the action, which at least has the effect of situating each scene in a different space. Even if they are all white with a red line running round them about halfway up the wall. But even this hardly feels like an outrageous exercise in regietheater-gone-mad.

The squash court is no doubt a cunning reference to one the famous motifs of Pinter's text being Jerry and Robert (I don't need to go through the plot, do I? We all know it backwards, right?) repeatedly mentioning that they haven't played squash together for years. Here the squash court surrounds them like an emblem of this failure, and a monument to the reason behind it.

Having spent recent days [this review was written on Weds, but then Blogger went to pieces] wondering at a tendency toward nit-picking in British theatre criticism (the partial modernisation of School for Scandal, swearing in the Cherry Orchard, and Merchant of Venice in Las Vegas), I find myself doing precisely the same here (you can take the critic out of England...). After all, if you go to the effort of projecting the fact that it's 1977 on the back wall before the first scene, why are the blokes wearing totally modern squash gear? But, no matter. It's an otherwise totally conservative modern dress production of a play set in 1968-77. In a squash court. It's fine.

The other thing that amused me was noting that the play was still set in England, and the characters still nominally English. I wondered from time to time if little things they said or did (“cheers” remained in English, for instance) were there to point up this fact. Whenever two characters met up, for example, one would pour the other about half a pint of neat gin. Not so much as a sniff of tonic water. Just half a pint of neat gin.

Gin apart, the characters didn't really come across as especially English. It was hard to tell, for example, whether the potentially homo-social aspect of Robert and Jerry's friendship was being foregrounded, or whether they were two men who were just a bit more relaxed in each other's company on account of not actually being English. At one point, Jerry even stroked the top of Roberts head. Of course, by this point in the scene, he'd drunk about a pint of neat gin, so maybe that was it.

Similarly, what I'd always understood as the crucial chilliness of the dialogue – essentially a play of gritted teeth and quiet control – seems to be more or less discarded. The crucial turning-point scene where Robert discovers Emma's affair here involves him giving her a bit of a beating, rather than the more usual English reading of a cold verbal interrogation. Making his subsequent (chronologically) claim that his hitting Emma “a bit” had nothing to do with Jerry a deliberate lie.

All of which is fine too. Indeed, it's mildly surprising to see the play done “straight” - i.e. with really no hint that the director is doing anything other than what they believe the script is asking them to do (oh dear, bad explanation) – and finding it turning up in such a different place. Part of this may of course stem from Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt's German translation. In one instance, for example, it changes Emma's (now somewhat dated-sounding) admission: “We're lovers” to (the German for) “We are in love” - which potentially alters not only this crucial moment but possibly the entire meaning and trajectory of the play. Or not.

However, elsewhere in the production there are hints of, well, at best a well-meaning naïveté or at worst carelessness. The Venice scene is flagged up by a film of an aerial view on a canal ineptly projected on the back wall of a the Squash Court and the table-cloth which Emma later/earlier presents with a flourish looks like the cheapest of afterthoughts. And in the final scene (i.e. the first, chronologically) Pink Floyd's Time is played again. A full five years before it was released.

All of which suggests that the whole was flung together without much thought, which therefore may have had an impact on the acting as well. But niggles aside, the production isn't actually too bad. In the context of the apparently TV-starry cast, Heikko Deutschmann and Anika Mauer run rings around the stolid, macho Peter Kremer in the acting stakes (and indeed, in the line-learning stakes), but the show rattles along pacily enough, in spite of this.

On the whole, though, this is much more of a curiosity than an out-and-out pleasure.


There's an interesting phenomena in Germany. It is this: there is a total disconnection between the state-funded theatre and the commercial sector. More than this, I am given to understand that the commercial sector receives almost no coverage from the serious theatre critics. The state theatres put on their mixture of incessantly revived, and always freshly re-imagined, texts from the canon (the Schiller, the Goethe, the narrow band of Shakespeares done here, the Aeschylus, the Euripides, etc.), new writing and modern classics (plus the surprising number of literary adaptations), the Off-theaters continue with their experiments in production and reception, and it appears that no one serious ever gives the slightest thought to the commercial sector.

Coming from London, this first struck me as utterly wonderful. Having been sent as a theatre critic for the Financial Times to such “theatre” as An Audience with the Mafia and TV magician Derren Brown I was more than a little jealous. Imagine a world, I thought, where I wasn't responsible for having to have an opinion on Lloyd-Webber's latest telly placement or jukebox musical.

At the same time, I was acutely aware that this distinction – as applied to Britain – was flawed. After all, there is nothing like the same gulf between British commercial theatre and its state-funded sibling as there seems to be in Germany. On one hand, we happily produce musicals and boulevard comedies in our state houses and, at the same time, as Simon Stephens recently noted, the possibility of a West End Transfer is something of a status symbol and not one to be sniffed at. As such, apart from anything else, there is basically no point in drawing a line between “commercial” theatre and the theatre made in British state theatres. Britain has always been one for blurring the lines between “popular” and “high” art, I'd argue, and now many argue that the terms themselves are meaningless.

As a result, the rejection or ignoring of a whole section of a city's theatres just isn't in my critical DNA. Also, criticism is sort of journalism, too, right? And Berlin's commercial sector is, if nothing else, a news story. Something to be reported on...

Armed with such reasoning, I find myself about the furthest out West I've ever been in Berlin (apart from a trip to Schloss Charlottenburg or the lakes on the edge of the city), outside the Renaissance Theater for a production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

As it turns out, the Renaissance Theater is a rather pleasant, modest-looking building, with few nods to glitz and/or glamour. The interior foyer is a bit ironic- (or, more worryingly, perhaps *not*ironic-) chintzy-posh (think The Ambassador's Receptions), but the auditorium itself is pleasantly intimate and oddly not unlike a scaled down version of Deutsches Theater – with a similarly low rake for the audience and plush walls and carpeting – quite unlike anything in either the West End or the subsidised sector. Perhaps try imaging the Royal Court or the Duchess redecorated by the people who did Kensington Palace. It was also interesting to note that its audience was far more like those that used to be the mainstay of Britain's own National Theatre, an almost solid wall of comfortably-off retirees.

But the most striking thing is that here Pinter is relegated to the same status as Yasmina Reza (the Renaissance Theater is also showing “Kunst”(!)), Hello, I'm Johnny Cash and Ewig Jung (Forever Young!). It's a bit like the discovering the Birmingham Hippodrome includes an Elfriede Jelinek staging in its repertoire (at least in terms of comparable Nobel-winning national stature)...

[you can now go back to the start of the review...]


ctamler said...

I enjoyed your dethroned intro. I've never given much thought to that commercial vs. theater as art distinction when it comes to critics here, but of course you're right.

Though, as a side note - Yasmina Reza is far from being considered just a commercial-theater playwright here. In 2008, my first summer in Germany, "The God of Carnage" - which had not yet been translated into English - was playing in the repertory of the state-funded theaters in EVERY city I visited.

Andrew Haydon said...

Ooh. Good point about Reza. I even knew that and had cleverly managed to selectively unremember it. My bad.

God of Carnage is translated, though.
My review of the London (straight-to-West-End) version here.

Actually, thinking back, after ART, her next play was done by our (the British) National Theatre. Clearly I should stop being quite so retroactively snotty.