Sunday 9 March 2014

Don’t Forget the Mirror: 'Schwarz Gemacht' at the English Theatre Berlin

In the beginning it is like a fairy tale with the tinkling of a piano and projected curtains opening over the back wall of the stage. The stage is empty save for a lone man pacing under two square frames that tower at sharp angles above him. These robotic limbs are lined with newspapers, and stacks of the same prop up the stage that slopes down to the right as you look at it.

A woman’s voice begins to narrate the Geshichte von den schwarzen Buben, or The Story of the Inky Boys, a poem for children by Heinrich Hoffmann. The poem comes from the book Der Struwwelpeter (1845) which comprises of ten poetic cautionary tales for and about infants, opening a bedroom door to reveal through the crack a hideous and bizarre adult world full of terrors ready to punish misbehaviour.

Klaus (played by Ernest Allan Hausmann) translates the poem into English, telling of Ludwig and Kaspar and Willhelm who, armed with flags and wearing trim jackets, tease a ‘woolly-headed black-a-moor’. After the poem Klaus dives upon a pile of newspapers in the centre of the stage and begins reading the stories frantically.

This is 1930s Berlin, and Klaus is following developments closely. Throughout the production he returns to these newspapers, standing in them, sleeping in them, diving into these stories for any sign of approaching danger or anything that would threaten his identity as a German.   

And this is Schwarz Gemacht, an original play by New Yorker Alexander Thomas, playing at the English Theatre Berlin (ETB) this month. Through the character of Klaus, Thomas tells the story of an Afrodeutscher, angry and withdrawn and desperately seeking a role to play in his beloved homeland. Haussman plays Klaus with a restrained fury, stiff and prickly, hiding the rage that would reveal his acknowledgement of himself as ‘other.’  That rage surfaces only a couple of times, but when it does is raw and wretched. Thomas has the woman’s voice from the beginning return throughout the production as Klaus’s mother, soothing and comforting, and instructing her son to ‘grow and be a good little German boy.’ With a pitiful poignancy Klaus translates his mother’s words as if repeating a mantra: ‘Ich bin Deutcher. Ich bin Deutscher’. Reading everything but the truth in the newspapers, Klaus refuses to see the warnings around him as National Socialism tightens its grip on the country, holding onto his precarious identity as a German with the tenacity of a terrified child clinging to his mother’s dress.

The story of the Afrodeutscher in the 1930s is not one that is commonly told and therefore Thomas had a challenge to get the audience up to speed without losing dramatic pace. Thomas accomplished this through the character of Lisa, played by Miriam Anna Schroetter. Lisa is a young woman from the States, guest in the house of her Berliner cousin Ruth (Kerstin Schweers), Ruth’s husband Walter (Marco Klammer), and Klaus, who occupies a blurred role in the house between friend, colleague and servant. Not only does Lisa enable Thomas to teach the audience the history of blacks in Germany, but also enables the play to be spoken almost entirely in English. Thomas’s careful construction of Lisa and his deft creation of the scenes in die Pension which weave in and out of the two languages, means that at no point does the play feel diluted or cumbersome in its means to be accessible for any ignorant and solely-English speaking members of the audience.

Rather than just structural devices Lisa and her hosts reflect the same confused identity in relation to their heimat as is seen in Klaus. ‘I was born in America,’ Lisa says. ‘But actually I am German.’ While she attempts to discover her heritage, Walter, one-time successful film director now reluctant accomplice in the production of Goebbels’s propaganda films, mocks his country with a black humour that fails to mask disgust, and cuts off Lisa’s elementary German saying that he prefers English. Ruth, meanwhile, is too nervous to even leave the flat.

Schroetter is as sweet and bright as she is patronizing and irritating. By tiptoeing on the precipice of exaggeration, Schroetter enables the petite Lisa to embody the sweeping force of America on stage. Only Klammer damages these scenes. His Walter at times becomes unbelievable as he overplays comic lines and slips into pantomime. It is an old actors’ line that to ‘play drunk’ you must try very hard to act sober. Klammer is merely pretending to be very drunk, and you are aware of it throughout.

This weakens the scenes in die Pension but not fatally. Director Daniel Brunel (artistic director of the ETB) has the four characters each standing under the jagged frames at the corners of the stage throughout these scenes. Klaus refuses to approach the drunken Walter despite his requests, who therefore resorts to throwing things at Klaus, his much sought-after Arbeitsbuch, for instance, or an empty flask of drink. Ruth will talk of past tenderness but scream at Klaus from across the stage and restrain Lisa from approaching him. For her part, Lisa draws Klaus to her when they are alone but only before a mutual modesty and submission to social conditions pull them apart again.  

Thomas raises the foreboding shadow of National Socialism off-stage with the occasional knock on the door from the local community watchman. It is not a knock we hear but a sharp chord on the piano, freezing the characters as if playing a game of musical statues. There is an element of the ridiculous in this as the four appear like children, hiding from one of the monsters of Der Struwwelpeter. It is these unseen dangers that threaten what Klaus calls Gemütlichkeit, the comfort, peace and love that he finds in his home country. It is not in fairy tales that Klaus watches for these monsters, put in the stacks of newspaper stories that Ruth feeds him with, telling him that he must be prepared.

Apart from Lisa’s naïve sunniness, the only other warmth in the play comes from old Maurice (Sadiq Bey), an African American playing (verboten) jazz in the city. Maurice, though adrift from and sceptical of his country, like Lisa exhibits its stereotypical traits. A mad-cat pursuit of freedom, friendliness, jokes in riddling banter, and the carefree attempts at a foreign language. Like Schroetter’s Lisa, Bey’s performance is beautifully poised on the cusp of cliché. Maurice exuberates a mellow and confident attitude towards himself and the world about him, detached, but never cold. When confronted with American racism by Klaus, Maurice responds, languidly, ‘My country is scheiße. But yours is scheiße too. And getting more scheiße everyday.’  

The harder Maurice tries to get Klaus to see his reflection in his own black face, the harder Klaus grips to his identity as a German. ‘Du bist Andere!’ Klaus screams at Maurice. ‘Ich bin Keiner!’ In Klaus’ quest to become a contributing member of German society, Thomas constructs the ironic scenario whereby Klaus ‘blacks up’ to act an African in one of Goebbels’s propaganda films. Thomas shows that it is from the State and in the newspapers that Klaus looks for instruction on how to be, on how to construct an identity imbedded in German society.

In Hoffman’s Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben, Ludwig, Kaspar and Wilhelm experience a hubris that isn’t to come to the Nazis in this play. As punishment for ‘laughing’ and ‘hooting’ at the moor, the ‘naughty boys’ are scooped up by ‘Saint Nicholas’ and thrown into his ‘mighty inkstand.’ In this story, as in the other tales, it isn’t the moor or Saint Nicholas or the inkstand, but the dark tendencies within the children themselves that are warned against. In Schwarz Gemacht, it is in this direction that Thomas directs our gaze.

Towards the end of the play Klaus relates a memory he has of playing upstairs in his grandmother’s attic. He remembers hiding from his ‘monster’ that was represented by a piece of furniture under a sheet in the centre of the room. When he eventually builds up the courage to confront his nemesis, Klaus rips of the sheet and is greeted by his own reflection in a great oak wood mirror. As with Ludwig, Kaspar and Wilhelm, as with Lisa and as with us, it should not be through the black and white columns of our country that we construct our identity, but by looking at ourselves.  

As Maurice says to Klaus, ‘You’ve gotta see yourself sometime.’  

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

English Theatre Berlin -


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  2. I saw this, too. This a good review of a great piece. Actually the only thing I don't agree with is the critique of Marco Klammer. I think the hardest thing about playing drunk is that we have so many subjective impressions of what being drunk is. I've never seen any actor's drunk successfully satisfy everyone. For me he absolutely was not over playing it. I felt he was totally within the bounds of believability and then in the scene when he was hung over I brought that too. He not too much to indicate it, just a little. But where I really thought he and all the supporting characters in boarding house or Pension caught fire was in the 2nd act. For me that speech he made about Nazis dropping the film project and sending him away was very strong and simply done. Where another actor might have gone into hysterics. I thought it was fine bit of acting actually.