Before it was filled with dawdling tourists bending their heads back to look up at the Fernsehturm, and before the U-bahn station and Döblin’s nightlife, and before the enterprising Jews from the eastern marshes arrived and occupied the ‘Scheunenviertel’, what is now Alexanderplatz, home of the World Clock, was a cattle market where outsiders would come to trade their stock and try to make a living. Since the Friesians, still cheap and with space to fill, Berlin has continued to thrive as a ‘Welstadt’, welcoming the rest of the world to its streets, from desperate refugees to the pleasure-seeking wealthy. Kreuzberg over the last twenty-five years has received the king’s portion of this influx, and it is in this kebab and hostel saturated district that a wall can be found sporting the words: ‘Echter Berliner!!!! Ihr Nicht Fuck You’.
It is from this piece of graffiti that Daniel Brunet found the title and inspiration for his piece of documentary theatre staged this month at the English Theatre Berlin, part of the ‘Aliens of Extraordinary Abilities?’ project. Considering what makes a real Berliner, Brunet and the other five in his cast – all from an ‘expat’ or ‘immigrant’ community – interviewed ten people from that respective community, exploring the shared and differing experiencing of moving to and living in Berlin. Together they collected over 115, 000 words, and it is from these testaments, performed on stage verbatim, that Brunet and his cast devised their piece of theatre, asking, what makes and who is an ‘Echter Berliner’?
Brunet commences his production at the Ausländerbehörde, the bureaucracy centre for all foreigners in the city, provoking sensations ranging from tedium to fear. Upon arrival each member of the audience is given a coloured ticket dependent on their country of origin and are curtly informed that ‘There is likely to be a delay in the commencement of the performance this evening’. Indeed, it is not until fifteen minutes after the stated starting time that the first group of coloured ticket holders are lead into the theatre. The mass of Germans, clutching red tickets in their palms, are led into the auditorium last.
Inside we see a sad looking character in Jewish garb, sitting morosely on a stall and rummaging through a plastic rucksack, looking like the lost boy on a school trip. When the play begins, he is joined on stage by the other five actors, including Brunet looking suitably American in baseball hat and aviators, one actress in traditional East Asian wear and another in a Muslim shawl. Each clearly represents not simply a culture, but the stereotype that is cast upon individuals from that culture; that which Brunet is attempting to wrench open. Yet such stereotypes are continually presented on stage to comic effect throughout the evening, whether it is the Turk laying out his tea-set with painstaking care or the proud Yorkshireman with the plumy voice. Because of this, Brunet runs the risk of reinforcing these stereotypes as opposed to breaking them down.
The play continues with irritable accounts of the staff in Starbucks refusing to respond in German, or being constantly asked, ‘No but seriously, where are you really from?’, refracted and repeated by from varying perspectives. It soon becomes apparent that the only thing to be comprehensively broken down and explored is the set. This is principally six wooden frames with paper screens, that are re-arranged, dismantled, toppled, walked through and twisted throughout the evening, representing booths, and doorways, and ironing boards, eventually all brought to the floor and ripped into their component parts. In deconstructing these barriers and boundaries Brunet shows the liberation - or wasteland - that will emerge when stereotypes and assumed differences are offered the same treatment. However by constantly tampering with the set he stalls any pace that the piece may hope to accumulate, and instead of intrigue and insight the audience is offered tedium and weariness. More effort should have been spent on stretching and exploring the question of what makes a real Berliner, achieved through a more nuanced engagement with the interviews and the theatrical versatility of the actors, who in comparison to the six wooden frames come across static. At times it appears that we are simply watching a group of friends gossiping about their travails as they embark on a communal evening of DIY. We are offered brief moments of excitement when a door frame occasionally falls down.
At one point in the production the six sit around a table and push a camera into each other’s faces while they are speaking. This is projected on to the stage, showing a dark and patchy picture of disorientated faces, like an amateur and intimidating interrogation video. This effect is unnerving, particularly when one of the actress recounts being confronted by neo-Nazis screaming ‘Auslander Aus!’ However this section at the table is also stretched out until it loses all drama. When a few muted clips of some of the real life interviews are shown, I wondered whether anything had been gained by presenting these stories in the theatre, and if simply an edited version of the research would have been more powerful.
At the end of the play the cast leave the stage chattering away to each other and one wishes that the audience had as much to chew upon when walking out of the theatre. It appears that the hard work of Brunet and his actors was spent in the conception and embryotic development of the play and not in its deployment. Sixty fingers wriggled into the colour and diversity of Berlin, and when put together on stage, glopped into a bland grey of generic urbanity and common complaints. An interesting result to consider in itself, but not, I believe, the intention of ‘Echter Berliner.’
Bertie Digby Alexander