Karin Henkel

© Volker Wiciok
Karin Henkel was born in Cologne in 1970, and grew up in Cologne and Lübeck. After failing to complete her degree course, she worked as an assistant director with George Tabori, among others, then made her directorial debut in 1993. She enjoyed her first successes at the Vienna Burgtheater before moving to Bochum Schauspielhaus in 1996. Since the end of the 1990s, Henkel has worked at various municipal and state theatres, including venues in Leipzig, Zurich and Hamburg. More recently, she has been responsible for productions at the Munich Kammerspiele and in Frankfurt am Main. She received her first invitation to the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2006 for Platonov, which had been created at Staatstheater Stuttgart. In 2008, she worked for the first time at Schauspiel Cologne under artistic director Karin Beier. In 2013, Beier also took Henkel back to the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, where she directed the staging of John Gabriel Borkman that earned her an invitation to the 2015 Theatertreffen. This is the fifth year in a row the director has been invited to Germany’s premiere drama festival.
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Portrait: Karin Henkel

Karin Henkel has been invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen five years in a row, from 2011 to 2015 – something no woman has managed before. As it happens, her career began with a record as well: in 1994, she was the youngest female director ever allowed to put on a production at one of the Burgtheater’s venues, Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times. Despite such pioneering achievements, Karin Henkel is not regarded as a star of German director’s theatre – because she does not present herself in this way. Her manner is unpretentious, she speaks with a friendly, professional tone in panel discussions and interviews, and all that is known about her private life is that she lives in Berlin when she is not working elsewhere.

The director prefers to let her work speak for itself. Her oeuvre is, however, not so easy to sum up: in the two decades of her career, Henkel has never been a director-in-residence at a theatre, but has constantly had to win over new audiences. And the accent of her dramatic language modulates – more clearly than that of other directors – to match the play she is engaging with. It is her declared intention to allow room for the unpredictable, which inevitably means accepting the possibility of failure. If she has a trademark, it is that she tends to root her thought processes very much in the play, an approach that repeatedly leads her to surprising spatial solutions. For her version of Electra at the Zurich Schauspielhaus (2012), for instance, she not only brought together different variants of the story (from Aeschylus to von Hofmannsthal), but showed the drama from two different perspectives as well: half the audience watched the clan of the Atrideans inside their palace, the other half viewed the play from the perspective of Electra and Orestes outside in front of the building. After the interval, the points of view were swapped over.

Her 2013 production Amphitryon and His Doppelgänger, also staged at Zurich, was both invited to the 2014 Theatertreffen and chosen as production of the year in the Theater heute critics’ survey. In it, she worked with a stage on the stage, and followed Kleist’s play Amphytryon to its logical conclusion by replicating all the characters and even having them shift between the stages in the middle of their dialogues. As a result, a play that was well over 200 years old became a fast-paced, refined game of mistaken identities for a contemporary world in which everyone places the utmost value on individuality, but in truth no one is unmistakeable any more. She herself is a good example of this point: Again and again, she still finds herself being mistaken for Karin Beier, who has regularly celebrated great triumphs with Henkel productions as well, first as artistic director at Cologne Schauspiel and now at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Karin Henkel shrugs off such mix-ups with her typical, modest humour.

Individual actors are not decisive to the success of Henkel’s stagings, for it is the ensemble that is the star. Nevertheless, her productions have helped to kick-start the personal careers of performers such as Lina Beckmann, who has played a number of roles for Henkel at the Cologne Schauspiel, including the naïve outsider Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the pragmatic, despairing Mrs John in Hauptmann’s The Rats, Henkel’s contribution to the 2013 Theatertreffen.
The fact that women frequently play men’s roles in her work only has a feminist message to the extent that, when seeking interesting parts for actresses she is excited about working with, the director says she frequently ends up considering male roles. Given that she believes theatre is always a matter of “how the role is performed and realised”, the actor’s gender and age are initially irrelevant. What the director said about the star of her Macbeth, Jana Schulz (2011, Munich Kammerspiele), when she wrote that she was “impossible to read in concrete terms,” and that, “The viewer is all the keener to see inside her mind,” is true of all Henkel’s characters. In the case of Macbeth, one saw into the mind of a man who was still a boy traumatised by war and allowed himself to be dominated by his unscrupulous wife. This inner turmoil was contrasted with a sketchy, stripped-down stage set and a remarkably comic murderous double-act.

It is necessary to let oneself get drawn into the lightness, openness and wit of Karin Henkel’s stagings, which consistently reflect the dramatic situation as well, while she allows herself the liberty of ranging freely across periods when it comes to the props she uses. Someone who resists this may well dismiss her works as being too arbitrary.
But even her critics surely cannot ignore the superb performances Karin Henkel coaxes out of her actors. In John Gabriel Borkman, the production at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus with which the director has been invited to the 2015 Theatertreffen, Josef Ostendorf plays the title role, Julia Wieninger his wife and Lina Beckmann her sister. One looks into all three minds equally, seeing tremendous aggression, compulsions and unhappiness. However, Henkel does not take this self-inflicted bourgeois tragedy more seriously than it needs to be, and shows the three as undead, trapped in a past that prevents them from living. With this production, the director has conquered a theatre where she was not always successful in earlier times. The idea that failure can represent an opportunity is more than just a platitude as far as she is concerned.
Anke Dürr

Productions - A selection

  • Bernard-Marie Koltès "Roberto Zucco"
    2015, Schauspielhaus, Zurich
  • Henrik Ibsen "John Gabriel Borkman"
    2014, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg
    Invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Lars von Trier "Dogville"
    2014, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • After Heinrich von Kleist "Amphitryon and His Double"
    2013, Schauspielhaus, Zurich
    Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • After Hugo von Hofmannsthal/Sophocles/Aeschylos/Euripides "Electra"
    2013, Züricher Schauspielhaus
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "The Rats"
    2012, Schauspiel Köln
  • Nach Fjodor Dostojewski "The Idiot"
    2012, Schauspiel Köln
  • Ödön von Horváth "Tales from the Vienna Woods"
    2012, Züricher Schauspielhaus
  • Henrik Ibsen "The Wild Duck"
    2011, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • William Shakespeare "Macbeth"
    2011, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Anton Chekhov "The Cherry Orchard"
    2011, Schauspiel Köln
    Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Maxim Gorki "Summer Guests/Night Asylum"
    2010, Munich Kammerspiele
  • Euripides "Alcestis"
    2010, Schauspielhaus Zürich
  • Anton Chekov "Three Sisters"
    2009, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Molière "The Misanthrope"
    2009, Schauspiel Köln
  • Choderlos de Laclos "Dangerous Liaisons"
    2009, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing "Minna von Barnhelm"
    2008, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg"
  • Heinrich von Kleist "Amphitryon"
    2007, Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf
  • Arthur Schnitzler "Seduction Comedy"
    2007, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg
  • Franz Molnár "Liliom"
    2007, Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Gerhart Hauptmann „The Rats“
    2006, Schauspiel, Leipzig
  • Edward Albee „Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf ?“
    2005, Schauspielhaus, Düsseldorf
  • Anton Chekov „Platonov“
    (Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen)
    2005, Schauspiel, Stuttgart
  • William Shakespeare "King Lear"
    2005, Theater Bremen
  • Arthur Schnitzler "Undiscovered Country"
    2004, Schauspielhaus Zürich
  • Ödön von Horvath "Faith, Hope and Charity"
    2003, Schauspielhaus Bochum
  • Tennessee Williams “A Streetcar Named Desire”
    2003, Theater Bremen
  • Elfriede Jelinek “In the Alps”
    2003, Stadttheater Koblenz
  • Lukas Bärfuss “Four Pictures of Love”
    2002, Schauspielhaus Bochum
  • Maxim Gorki “Summer Folk”
    2001, Schauspiel Leipzig
  • August Strindberg “Intoxication”
    2000, Schauspielhaus Bochum
  • William Shakespeare “Henry IV”
    1999, Volksbühne Berlin im Prater
  • Georg Büchner “Woyzeck”
    1999, Schauspielhaus Zürich
  • Michael Frayn “Noises Off”
    1997, Schauspielhaus Bochum
  • Eugene O’Neill “Long Day's Journey Into Night”
    1996, Schauspielhaus Bochum
  • Friedrich Schiller “Cabal and Love”
    1995, Burgtheater Vienna
  • Arthur Miller “The Crucible”
    1994, Akademitheater Vienna
  • Coline Serreau “Rabbit Rabbit“
    1993, Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden