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Now relax the culture war

Peter Stein said that every theater director must stage a Chekhov every five years.

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Now relax the culture war

Peter Stein said that every theater director must stage a Chekhov every five years. Unlike many of his colleagues, Thomas Ostermeier comes close. "The Seagull" celebrated its premiere at the Berlin Schaubühne. He had already staged the same play in France seven years ago.

Back then he staged the drama of unhappy loves in an empty box, this time a huge plane tree is on the stage, spreading its branches over the front rows of the audience. The tree creaks, birds chirp. Ostermeier, who designed the stage together with Jan Pappelbaum, opens up the events and brings them closer to the audience.

This in turn is reminiscent of Peter Stein, who in the 1980s did celebrated Chekhov evenings at the Schaubühne with "The Cherry Orchard" and "Three Sisters", where real birch trees stood on the stage. Now, less of a Russian cliché and hardly defined in terms of location, it's a plane tree under which everything takes place - an e-cigarette in the first scene indicates that it's meant very contemporary.

Stein called it “group theatre”, in which there is no single hero, just a network of relationships, desires and desires. Chekhov himself wrote about "The Seagull": "One comedy, three female roles, six male roles, four acts, one landscape, little plot, one pood love." A pood was a Russian unit of measurement - and with more than 16 kilograms it was not a small one.

For Chekhov, love is a broad metaphor that leads from the formation of a couple to the cohesion of a society to impossible longing. It means the general human desire and the many forms it can take. In his production, Ostermeier concentrates on an aspect that Chekhov did not mention in his enumeration – art.

The enthusiastic Konstantin (Laurenz Laufenberg) performs a play under the plane tree with his beloved Nina (Alina Vimbai Strähler). It's a grotesque evocation of the eco-apocalypse, as if directed by the "Last Generation". A lot of claim, little form. This parody of post-dramatic contemporary theater is not pulled out of thin air.

There is zero understanding from the older generation, especially from Konstantin's mother Irina (Stephanie Eidt), an overexcited blonde and actress by profession. Her lover, the slightly worn-out writer Trigorin in an eccentric costume (Nehle Balkhausen), has only a weary smile for the performance, all the more so for the performer.

Joachim Meyerhoff as Trigorin is an experience. At first, he hardly needs words to exude enormous wit. If he goes fishing in swimming trunks and sunglasses at the back of the stage, the entire hall laughs. When he talks about the compulsive processing through writing, one also sees the writer Meyerhoff, who grew up on the premises of a psychiatric ward. Trigorin, the secret protagonist of the production, is quirky, odd and lovable. What he is not: a cynical power man.

This is possibly the decisive setting of the evening: the aging writer who seduces a young naive woman and finally abandons her could have been put on as a MeToo libertine in all debates about the abuse of power in art and in the theatre. Or as subcutaneous racists with a soft spot for the exotic.

But Ostermeier pleads for de-dramatization in the Kulturkampf and breaks a lance for the wrong paths of the libido. Everyone is embarrassed, everyone lives with their illusions, which may have different content, but are structurally not that dissimilar. In the conflict between the generations of artists, everyone makes a fool of themselves to the best of their ability. And in love, being ridiculous is more or less the norm. This is the mirror that the evening holds up to its era and its art.

But Ostermeier exaggerates the ridiculous so much that the characters hardly show any other nuances. The entire piece tilts into the boulevardesque. It's a cabinet of embarrassments, which is very entertaining in large parts, but it hardly explains why Konstantin actually shoots himself at the end.

Because he belongs to the generation of hypersensitive Snowflakes? Too much drama? The characters squirm for almost three hours, but in the end they don't know what a successful life - and what successful theater is - either. That's the tragic side of the clothes. With Ostermeier there is less world pain, less depth and certainly no Russian soul, but above all human comedy. And Chekhov is one of the greatest for that.

Does this herald a Chekhov renaissance? After the veritable Chekhov mania in the Berlin theaters in the 2000s, it would definitely be time for it (and no, Chekhov shouldn't be canceled as an auror born in Russia in 1860, that's world literature). At that time, Falk Richter tried his hand at the Schaubühne with political updates of "The Seagull" (2004), "Three Sisters" (2006) and "The Cherry Orchard" (2008).

The terminally ill Jürgen Gosch left his legacy at the Deutsches Theater with “Onkel Wanja” and “Die Möwe” (both 2008), images of existential narrowness and veritable despair. In "Iwanow" (2005) at the Volksbühne, Dimiter Gotscheff wrapped his ensemble in a stage set of pure fog as a sign of social disorientation.

Anton Chekhov is an eternal challenge for the theater, a benchmark of skill and a challenge to interpret the world. Simon Stone furiously brought "Three Sisters" (2016) into the present of Netflix realism. Johan Simon's "Iwanow" (2020) with a grandiose Jens Harzer, on the other hand, was a poetic-melancholic meditation. Thomas Ostermeier has to measure himself against this.

If you think of the psychologically and politically finer worked evenings like "Professor Bernhardi" or atmospherically gripping ones like "Vernon Subutex", it's not a big hit in his work, but it's close. Only Joachim Meyerhoff as Trigorin will remain unforgettable. And after Peter Stein it shouldn't be more than five years anyway until the next Chekhov.

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