MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Frank Castorf at Berliner Ensemble

For his first major post-Volksbühne production in Berlin, Frank Castorf has staged a version of Les Misérables at the Berliner Ensemble. It inaugurates a new relationship with BE, which itself is now its first season under Oliver Reese (following the quarter-century tenure of Claus Peymann).

Castorf brings his signature approach to Victor Hugo’s epic (whether in the full c. eight-hour “director’s cut” or “shortened” to a six-hour staging), blending characters and narrative threads from the novel with oblique references to Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba in Tres Tristes Tigres to generate a montage-like dream state of non-linear associations. The connection with the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris has to do with Hugo’s pronounced support of Cuban freedom fighters.

The usual Castorf technical apparatus plays a central role: close-up real-time filming of the actors projected onto a large screen, using a fantastically lit rotating stage representing a Cuban cigar factory facade, a market stall, a sort of storage area, and a watchtower.

Excesses of physical exertion, emotion, reaction punctuate the theatrical rhythm to overwhelming, at times stupefying, effect. The most indelible performance of many highlights for me came from 85-year-old Jürgen Holtz, playing both Marius’ grandfather–in a nearly-half-hour-long opening monolog on the metaphoric sewers of Paris–and Bishop Myriel. Holtz’s portrayal of the latter’s compassion as an agent of social justice is theater at its most compelling.

Filed under: Frank Castorf, theater

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