Cultural Overkill

Amazing Berlin Nights by Clive La Pensée

Sometimes, a choice of entertainment can lead to strange places. I saw an advert for a reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets for his 400th – we didn’t know in which language it would be, but as the venue was one of our favourites, the UfA Fabrik, we couldn’t resist the moment.

The UfA is the original film studio in Berlin and stands in stark contrast to the modern media centres, which now dot the area around Tempelhof. It is a series of theatres, each seating an audience of around 120. That’s how they made films in the twenties – on a stage, with theatrical settings, a few people in the audience behind the paraphernalia of film making. Now these beautiful art deco interiors have been kitted out as auditoria and are homes to cabaret and stand-up comedy in Berlin.

Our Shakespeare reading was open air, under a huge tent with open sides. The stage was in the middle – theatre in the round. The props gave no clue what to expect. A classical Greek Arch had been carefully assembled from scrap wood and paid tribute to Heath Robinson, and then, in the style of Hildegard from Bingen, the show started with a sung sonnet – it looked like a long evening! We soon discovered the language was to be a mixture of English and German, sometimes at the same time. Things went from bad to worse for Shakespeare buffs, as the Ton und Kirschen Wandertruppe (Sound and Cherries Travelling Theatre Company) got going. After Hildegard, the sonnets were variously read and sung in the style of Country and Western, rock n’ roll, Happy Days, or was it End Game? And many genres I didn’t spot. One involved a fish-tank and bubble machine and towards the end, as the arch was vandalised, I was afraid they would set fire to the theatre. One of the actresses was also a puppeteer. She created those magic puppet moments that let you suspend disbelief. She had complete control of her audience.

I was baffled, but totally entertained, and have no idea which sonnets – if any, they used.

Thursday we went to a small nearby palace (Schloss Britz) and heard music students from the Paul Hindemith Music Academy perform Orlando by Haydn (1732-1809). What a hoot! They hired professionals for the main singing parts, and they were brilliant. The palace wasn’t used, but the converted stables.

I spent time trying to relate Orlando the opera, to Shakespeare’s love-struck hero hanging billets-doux on trees. I realised Haydn used a different story, firstly recorded in Italian poetry by Ludovico Ariosto (1516). His Orlando was translated into German as the ‘Raging Roland.’ Gone is the love-struck Orlando of As You Like It. Roland is raging after rejection by the pagan Queen Angelica. He spends most of the opera seeking out the Saracen, Rodemonte, to declare war and, he hopes, relieve the frustration of getting the heave-ho from the object of his desire – the Queen! The belligerent Roland is accompanied by suitable music, there are at least three other unrequited loves, and everything descends into the usual operatic chaos as they all chase the one they can’t have. I sometimes think the Monty Python team were opera lovers. The mayhem is solved and given a happy ending by a convenient fairy. This speaking part was played by 9-year-old Eila Min Thi Edelmann. She stole the show.

There is a similarity between Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Ariosto’s Raging Roland. Both carry the message, ‘life is easier if you love the one who loves you’.

Friday it was into a cinema, about 100 metres from the Philharmonie, to see/hear Sir Simon open the Berlin Phil’s new season with Mahler VII (premier Prague 1907). No tickets were available in the concert hall for any money. Thank goodness for cinemas.

Mahler VII defined music for the 20th century. His most known contribution to popular culture is the use of the fourth movement of his fifth for the film score to Visconti’s Death in Venice. The film was based on the Thomas Mann novel of the same name and is hardly acceptable fare these days. Mann enjoyed mentioning the unmentionable. His Wälsungenblut is a study of incest. It is apparent he got the idea from the scene in Wagner’s Die Walküre, where the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde consummate after years of separation. Siegmund sings‚ ‘Bride and sister to your brother, so prosper, Wälsungen tribe’. Mann had to withdraw the story because his wife and brother-in-law were twins, just as the incestuous pair in his novella. Mann’s wife needed to protect her family.

How he got away with Death in Venice, (1911) as a study of paedophilia is interesting. But that was then! Much on this subject has only recently been dragged into the light of day. When Mann wrote his novel, it was better to flee the ‘dirty old men’, than talk about it. Parents were likely to say, ‘you have made that up.’ That was true in 1971 when Visconti made the film.

Mann despised middle-class values, despite the fact that he lived from his wife’s middle-class money. He claimed he would have been a better writer without the cash and connections. Von Aschendorf’s humiliation in Venice is played out against the background of the decadent bourgeoisie. Mahler’s music has a similar anti-bourgeois vein. He uses many folk tunes, often distorted, sometimes ugly, but always respectful of their origins – Mahler was a composer of the Viennese worker. Both Mahler and Mann were obsessed by Wagner.

Number VII is massive, complex, 80-90 minutes long and Rattle did it without a score. He repeated the action at the Albert Hall Prom a few nights later, and one can still stream that performance through the BBC. It is worth a peek, even if the full 90 minutes isn’t your thing. I recommend the fifth movement if you only do one.

After the cinema, it was on to the Lindenbräu, next door to the cinema in the Sony Centre. There we celebrated three fantastic evenings, with too much Zwickelbier and Flammkuchen. Fortunately for the neighbours, Mahler VII is too intricate to hum while attacking a moving keyhole.

Image – the fairy solves the loving chaos in Haydn’s Orlando – Schloss Britz performance.