BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 06 MAY 03
Featured in
Issue 75

Thinking out of the Box

Bert Neumann's radical set design for The Idiot

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 06 MAY 03

Over the last decade we have got used to various types of peep show, in life and in the arts; but the experience provided by Frank Castorf's recent production of The Idiot (based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel of that name, written in 1868-9) at Berlin's Volksbühne theatre is still unnerving. For a start, everything seems the wrong way round: on the stage there is scaffolding that provides seating for the audience, while the stalls have been transformed by set designer Bert Neumann into 'Neustadt' (new city), a name that conjures up the typical Modernist urban development still dominating large parts of the former capital of socialist East Germany. 'Neustadt' consists of several buildings, all of them deliberately makeshift in their construction. Overshadowed by a mock skyline above in the circle, plus three blocks of flats that give the entire environment a suggestion of Alfred Kubin's 1920 Expressionist design for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the ramshackle buildings look like approximations of a barber's shop, a 7-11 or a hot dog stall. It is here that most of the action of The Idiot is set.

The effect is a bit like Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) remade as 'Front Window': only those parts of the action that do not take place behind the walls of the buildings are directly visible. But at the same time, in a manner reminiscent of Big Brother, the action that takes place behind the walls is relayed by CC-TV on to a number of monitors. The performance lasts for five hours, although the docu-soap intensity of the first couple of hours is not sustained all the way through. One aspect of the production that is an unqualified success, however, is the way in which Neumann has redefined the traditional way in which the theatre space is used.

'Neustadt' is just the latest in a long line of ideas by Neumann for what could be called 'crossover' spaces. It is a design that the Volksbühne intends to use again for The Idiot and other theatre productions, and for events such as concerts - by Finnish electronica artist Vladislav Delay, for example. 'Neustadt' reduces significantly the available seating, from 750 to about 250 - a rather radical decision in times of major cutbacks in financial support from local government. Occasionally 'Neustadt' becomes 'Ersatzstadt' (ersatz city), when the Volksbühne hosts lectures and conferences on economic and planning issues relating to metropolises such as Rem Koolhaas' beloved Lagos, or Bombay, or Istanbul.

All these events combine to make the Volksbühne, situated in a fortress-like building close to the Alexanderplatz in former East Berlin, one of the world's outstanding venues - one that goes way beyond what is normally thought of as avant-garde theatre. Neumann is obviously fascinated by the technical processes involved in enabling people to see what they are not supposed to see, and his work is thus frequently based on a dialectic of vast landscapes and reclusive buildings, which are invaded by cameras. Inside the Prater, the Volksbühne's alternative space in the bohemian Prenzlauer Berg district, Neumann built a version of Death Valley - complete with cacti and a shack for three cowgirls - for a production of René Pollesch's A Woman under the Influence (2000), loosely based on John Cassavetes' 1974 film with Gena Rowlands. (The reworking of film settings is a recurring motif in Pollesch's plays.) As they prepare for a rustic night's sleep in the shack, a typical Western scenario, the actresses tease each other with a little spy-cam, the images from which are projected on to a wall.

In the case of The Idiot, the private becomes public in a far more sophisticated way: some of the most intimate encounters between Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin and Aglaya are transmitted directly on to the screens of 'Neustadt'. The point being made is that in bourgeois society, where love is always related in some way to property, even the most intimate situation is not truly private. This contrasts with the situation under Communism, when property belonged to the state (which considered itself identical with society). Privacy then became irrelevant, a 'petty bourgeois' concept. For the Volksbühne, which has taken over as standard-bearer for left-wing, radical theatre from the orthodox and Brechtian Berliner Ensemble, this is of key importance. 'Neustadt' is not least a playful response to the fact that in the former East Germany theatre offered a kind of ersatz bourgeois experience. This was the system under which Bert Neumann grew up: his parents were architects and actively defended the Bauhaus against accusations of élitist functionalism. Neumann himself now defends theatre as a space in which performance is privileged over other rival uses of the space - both virtual and physical - simply by incorporating them into his designs.

'Neustadt' is the exact opposite of the set Neumann designed for The Possessed (1999), another famous Volksbühne production based on a Dostoevsky novel. For that he put a bungalow in the centre of the stage, where it remained throughout the performance, visible but at a distance. It was like a cinema long shot, but the actors were able to hide from direct view, for example by drawing the curtains. The close-ups were shown later, when in 2001 Frank Castorf and his crew made a film of The Possessed that was very much in the vérité style of Dogma films. While The Possessed seems split between these two ways of presentation, between live long shot and recorded close-up, in 'Neustadt', the two strategies are combined. The scaffolding for the audience becomes a sculpture in itself, like the temporary grandstands at outdoor sports events or for stunts - such as jumping from a skyscraper, as in René Pollesch's Escape from New York (2002), after John Carpenter's 1981 film (and now with echoes of 11 September 2001).

'Neustadt' openly displays itself as being a Potemkin village, a pleasant façade, but its walls are not designed just to create an illusion, to suggest something that isn't actually there. They establish a boundary that cannot be crossed by lifting the curtain. 'Neustadt' incorporates the outside world into the theatre in a much more fundamental way. No wonder that the final moments of The Idiot are performed in complete darkness, the only possible means of escape from the cameras' relentless gaze. The sole audible sound is a series of sighs, and these are almost drowned out by the continual chat of the curious bystanders in the adjacent room, who for once have no clue about what is going on.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.