postcards from berlin #17 [theatre on sharp edges]
THE SITUATION (r. ronen) @ maxim gorki theater berlin
ahhhhh. i finally get it—the yael ronen thing.
it’s a tight piece with a simple premise (several immigrants in berlin from various parts of the middle east are all connected through their very earnest and well-intentioned (gay, progressive, bleeding-heart lefty) german teacher. so ernest, he almost seems canadian.
it’s more work from the devised end of yael ronen’s practice, but this one moves a little bit more toward fiction than autobiography and doesn’t rely quite so heavily on the tension between the two—i.e. the dramatic effect isn’t augmented by wondering what’s true and what’s not.
“the situation” refers to what’s going on in the middle east—a large-scale political conflict that’s manifesting on a personal level, between palestinians, syrians, israelis, and lebanese people living in berlin. the piece was named “play of the year” last year by theater heute and was invited to theatertreffen.
it’s super smart, tight, and most of all, it’s not over-ambitious. which might sound like a criticism. but i mean it in the sense of that rule of business, do a few things well, and don’t try to do everything. structurally, they’ve found a really specific and simple way of structuring the work where everything is set up and streamlined toward a reversal and payoff. which means we have more room for nuance of argument, we can carry more, because the piece is making a clear ask of us: “we’ll take care of shape, you watch out for language and content.”
what makes this successful where i don’t know that the other two pieces i’ve seen this year have been, is in its approach to form and conflict. the first two pieces, upon reflection, felt like a creator without quite enough time to organize her material, structuring it around some reliable tricks that she knows can pull people in. this piece is wrought of itself, not the director’s calling card.
and in terms of conflict, the situation marches into the swamp until its up to its ears, right in the murky depths where culture, race, and national identity all intersect and explode, where there is deep seated violent hate—she doesn’t shy away from it, but she stays grounded in her own humane perspective and sense of humour. it works because it doesn’t feel like it’s avoiding the question—not like roma armee, for instance.
this is the kind of work gorki is doing that feels really rich. where it situates a piece of theatre right on the sharp edges of a conflict, on the boundary line between several perspectives, and dares to spend a while inside a disagreement. it what i find most brave in gorki’s approach (see also #5 VERRÜCKTES BLUT). it’s the fearlessness with which it approaches these points of friction that makes it feel most exciting to me, and it’s a fearlessness i often crave in toronto. a fearlessness about looking at boundary lines and edges between people, rather than work that is specific to a single cultural experience. it's why the car accident is more dramatically interesting than being inside the car—on the long drive the conflicts come from within a relatively homogenous experience, but on the side of the road after an accident you're asking people to reach beyond their cultural bubble in a high-stakes conflict. this fearlessness makes space to move past moralism and deal with the relationships between people one a level that is funny, touching, and frightening, and manages to take a massive abstract conflict (the middle east) and render it, if only for 2 hours inside the theatre), comprehensible and humane.
for more on the show click here.