War and Peace under the shadow of the Apparat

I’ve learned my lessons: I will not go to traditional German theater anymore and I will never again book a play without first checking its duration.

Yesterday night I went to the Volksbühne to see Krieg und Frieden, five hours of 19th century Russian war drama, by the Centraltheater Leipzig as part of the Theatertreffen. I had been listening to its soundtrack by Apparat for the past months. It used to be freely available on Soundcloud and is out now on Spotify.

The excellent music and the fact that the intendant of Leipzig, Sebastian Hartmann, had made some interesting statements about the state of German theater heightened my anticipation for this play.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one drawn in by the presence of a world renowned electronic musician. The  room was noticeably younger than for instance the Haus der Berliner Festspiele the day before but unfortunately it didn’t stay that way. As soon as people around me figured out that this wasn’t going to be an Apparat concert, that in fact the bits of music were going to be interrupted by long and boring German theater, many of them left.

The music was good. So good in fact that the play suffered by comparison1.

What was wrong with the play? I would give it an A for effort because that had gone into it. But still all of that effort could not improve the poor writing and dramaturgy. We got subjected to literal hours of exposition2. Actors enter, they declaim happenings in the 19th century, they expect this to have an affective effect on us and then they leave. Repeat. Sometimes they do this in chorus form which makes it even worse.

The absence of gripping monologues or almost any sharp dialogue did not help the energy level of the play. I felt like I was being beat into drowsiness that was occasionally relieved by the music.

Qualitatively there were lots of good things in this bad play. The acting when it was allowed was actually really good. There were a couple of scenes that managed to be evocative and memorable. The tilting platform was used brilliantly and added interesting dynamic variations to the scenes. It looks like there are two hours of very solid theater hidden away in these five. If only the director’s creativity had been restrained a bit and his darlings been massacred by somebody.

After the main play, a third part was tacked on which should have been scrapped. The actors go into a meta-treatment and engage in extensive amateur-philosophizing. This was the part where I got my much needed bit of sleep (the room was a third empty by then). The electronic lighting and animation at the very end were added in a way that didn’t match anything in the piece. One wonders at the deliberation that went into that if any.

German theater need not be stuck in the past as proven by Ostermeier. Russian classics need not be enacted in a boring fashion as proven by van Hove. That makes the creation of this mix with its good music, quality acting, terrible indulgence and dramaturgical chaos a choice. A choice that should have been made differently.

  1. At the end there was one old German guy booing Apparat like an animal during the applause. It turns out not everybody is a big fan of electronic music.
  2. I think exposition is wholly superfluous in modern media but maybe it should be left in to the benefit of the older audiences that go to these plays?

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