(all quotations are by castorf and are my own translations, put together from my understanding of german sentence structure, liberal use of dict.cc and google translate, and a lot of ‘i think i know what he means’. take with a massive grain of salt.)
(Siegfried, dir. Castorf, des. Aleksandar Denić, light. Rainer Casper)
I have been studying the work of German-born director Frank Castorf over the past month. Last November, Abigail, Cécile and I went to see his production of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ at the Volksbühne. It went on for around six and a half hours and finished somewhere close to 1am; the whole theatre became the set (projected into the main space by two roaming camera crews), and the actors, with complete disregard for health and safety, climbed all over the space, shouted and screamed at each other with incredible pace, and clambered through the audience all seated on super comfy beanbags. A six-and-a-half-hour Dostoevsky adaptation sounds dry af but it was sexy, hilarious, ridiculous and violent.
“In the theatre, before the dog begins to bite, all possible victims are warned ‘Caution, I’ll bite!’ When it begins, everyone is safe for a long time. I no longer find this to be truthful; there can be no comedy and no sadness under these circumstances because everything that happens on the stage has been calculated.” (Castorf)
(Die Brüder Karamasow, dir. Castorf, des. Bert Neumann, light. Lothar Baumgarte)
Two things stick out from this study which characterise, for me, how Castorf sees the world.
The first is a focus on politics and history – especially world politics and the relationship between a social mainstream & people who live outside that mainstream. Reading his interviews often feel like reading something published by Verso Books; there was as much, if not more, in his interviews about reunification Germany, the Balkans, the relationship between the West and Africa, than there was about art and theatre. He speaks with a cutting, bitter edge. This is a primary food for his work:
“The movement of history, which is in part the history of class struggle, revolution and violent transformation, seems to be lost. This is part of our own complacency; we do not communicate processes which take place all over the world. We exclude, for example, Africa, so that we do not have to communicate with it anymore. You can see how a whole continent can be forgotten, because nobody can get to grips with it in medical, humanitarian, military or economic terms. It is placed outside of our communication system. The fact that we have not yet broken off contact with Belgrade or Iraq means that we have not yet given up hope there, that perhaps it is still possible to teach people the use of fork and knife.”
Obvs this isn’t a unique characteristic, but to hear about politics - beyond the most up-to-date hot-take 'political’ discourse – with an outward-looking focus out of the mouth of a theatre director is inspiring.
(Faust, dir. Castorf, des. Aleksandar Denić, light. Lothar Baumgarte)
The other, related aspect that stuck out for me is Castorf’s focus on destruction : this is particularly acute in his relationship with the classic source material with which he works. A text is stripped for scenes and situations – like individual tracks on a record – and are put together in a new formation.
“Too much literature tries to model the world’s compehensibility and controllability. For me, there is something ridiculous about explaining things. Clarity is crushing. Because it’s a lie. That is why I am suspicious of traditional narrative structures… Therefore I very quickly pick up a screwdriver and saw. But we do not stop at the destruction. Something is put back together again, something is built up; it is related to the old but it is a new construction. Suddenly, a completely different, negating and irrational state is created.”
A classic text is stripped for parts, and placed into a new dramaturgy alongside contemporary music, theoretical texts, text from other plays, and improvised dialogue between performers (talking either as themselves or as their characters). There are in-jokes that run between the ensemble from performance to performance (apparently there was a cycle of shows in which actors would prepare a meal from scratch on stage, and they’re still making jokes about it).
I love all of this because I feel that it re-organises what an audience receive from an evening at the theatre. It’s not a self-contained drama – comparable in the way it thinks of itself to a narrative drama movie – but more like a cabaret, with storytelling, song and other types of performance. It’s self-awareness also locates it as a performance by this particular company of people based at this particular theatre in this particular city. The fact that these shows are only presented a couple of times a month, and that they are so long, help to create the feeling of an 'event’.
Now – try explaining this to even the most forward-thinking theatres and arts organisations in Britain. 'A classic’ sets off an inexorable train of associations - ideas of historical dress, lots of large-scale static images, long speeches that the audience sort-of follow. And 'a new version of..’ sets off another train of associations - similar to the above but with swearing, maybe some actors in a glass box. It turns a whole load of people off (those who specialise in new writing or devised new work), and it leads a whole other set of people (those who produce well-made new versions of classics) to expect something different.
There’s not a lot of room for a show to be a production of a classic text, but to have a jagged, elliptical and contemporary performance dramaturgy. Peter Boenisch wrote somewhere that the presence of a devising process does not guarantee a forward-thinking dramaturgy in performance. Yet it’s much, much more difficult to receive funding for a show that does not produce a ‘new piece of writing’ - you’ve just gotta call it something else.
Castorf, for me, exemplifies the possibility of making contemporary work from old text: all his recent work is based on 19th century novels or Ibsen plays, but the shows’ radical dramaturgy of excess and carnage feels like the most contemporary theatre I’ve thought about in ages.
(Baumeister Solness, dir. Castorf, des. Bert Neumann, light. Lothar Baumgarte)