Mülheim Theatre Festival 2015
Play Material: Reality

Stücke opening
Stücke opening | © Michael Kneffel

To the Mülheim Theatre Festival 2015, theatre texts and premieres were invited that work like documentary fictions or literary documentations. All treat the breaking points of the global political situation.

The selection of plays that have been invited since 2005 years to the Mülheim Festival documents how the concept of authorship has changed. 2015, you can read off from the selection of the seven premieres that in the bulk of theatre texts the boundary between documentary and fiction has become permeable. They pose the question whether they have been written by an author committed to documentary theatre or by one who stands closer to literary fiction. The existence of this tendency to dissolution of boundaries has to do with the fact that currently hardly anyone writes “classical” plays about the great themes of love, death, the family and the eternal battle of the sexes. Dramatists have increasingly turned for their subjects to the crisis and war-ridden world.

Research Group Gorki

The autohrs treat more and more socio-political issues and write theatre texts that are cast as fiction, but contain documentary elements. Or the texts are the result of documentary research yet function, as in the case of Yael Ronen’s Common Ground, as if they were fictional narratives. The Israeli theatre maker works with actors at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin to link the Yugoslavian civil war of 1991 – 1995 with the family biographies of participating members of the ensemble. They come from Belgrade, Zagreb or Novi Sad. And they belong to families whose stories have been shaped in various ways by the Balkan war.

The Research Group Gorki travelled to Bosnia and developed from research results a documentary stage fiction that is initially about what else happened in the world in the corresponding years. The performance then increasingly develops in the direction of a narrative that could be an autobiographical novel. On stage stand actors who tell their family stories and of their embedment in the Yugoslavian war. That Common Ground is far more than a series of research results is because the set pieces of family fates come together in an overall narrative. They constitute narrative play material.

European navel-gazing

Common Ground shows how documentary theatre can extend its scope in the direction of literary narrative. By contrast, there was Wolfram Lotz’s Die lächerliche Finsternis (i.e. The Ridiculous Darkness), premiered by Dušan David Pařízek at the Vienna Akademietheater. In his sights Lotz has the Europeans, who think themselves the centre of the universe and look down upon the rest of the world in an attitude of post-colonial ignorance. The models of this specifically European navel-gazing are Joseph Conrad’s classic of colonialism Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Conrad-palimpsest, the Vietnam classic Apokalypse Now. From these works Lotz takes his narrative structure. The allusions to current events are taken from the newspaper and the Internet.

At the very beginning we learn how it is with piracy in Somalia. The background is formed by the criminal trial at the Hamburg Regional Court in 2012 against ten Somali pirates. They had held up the German freighter Taipan, were charged with piracy and “treated” to a free flight to the venue of jurisdiction, Hamburg. On stage at the Vienna Akademietheater one of the pirates explains that the sea off the coast of Somali has been fished out by international fishing fleets; he therefore studied piracy at the University of Mogadishu, but was unfortunately caught and arrested during his first foray.

Somewhat later we travel with a certain Oliver Pellner and Stefan Dorsch up the Hindu Kush and learn that it is by no means a mountain range but a river. The staff sergeant and the corporal are searching for a colleague who went crazy in the course of the Afghanistan mission and killed other Bundeswehr soldiers. The models for this narrative thread are the investigations of the Gera district attorney’s office and the death of a twenty-one-year-old lance corporal who was reportedly killed by a comrade who negligently handled a firearm. We could well have landed in the midst of a documentary, but sense that Lotz is playing a game of deliberate confusion with sensitive global political issues and journeying with us into the dark heart of Western hubris.

Literary manifesto

Elfriede Jelinek proceeds very differently when she confides to the theatre a rant denouncing the irresponsible stance of European politics in the face of the mass death of African refugees in the Mediterranean. Die Schutzbefohlenen (i.e. The Wards) is a literary manifesto; from afar beckon models like Georg Büchner’s Hessischer Landbote (i.e. The Hessian Courier). Jelinek, however, also addresses the shame felt by the Central European intellectual sitting in his or her warm study yet committed to the hopeless cause of the refugees. Any theatre that performs the text must confront the brake of this self-reflexive shame. This has hitherto been done most consistently in Nicolas Stemann’s premier of the play, a co-production of the Mannheim Theater der Welt and the Hamburg Thalia Theater. Stemann put the permanently quarrelling Thalia actors alongside a living document of German asylum policy: Hamburg Lampedusa refugees.

These were the most striking examples of this year’s Mülheim selection. In the ranks of the docu-fictional theatre texts were also Felicia Zeller’s Wunsch und Wunder (i.e. Desire and Miracle), premiered by Marcus Lobbes at the Saarland Staatstheater in Saarbrücken. Zeller uses research on “artificial insemination” as raw material for an insemination farce. And then there was Dirk Laucke’s Furcht und Ekel. Das Privatleben glücklicher Leute (i.e. Fear and Loathing. The Private Life of Happy People), premiered by Jan Gehler’s at the Schauspiel Stuttgart. Laucke has listened into the xenophobic mood of Pegida Germany very carefully and written a theatre text whose genre affiliation is as uncertain as the world of which it tells.