Stephen Brown in Berlin celebrates 20 hours of peerless Peter Steinby Stephen Brown / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
upon hearing the first few lines of Goethe’s Faust, I was disappointed to realise that I could not understand what was being said. This was a cruel blow at the start of a theatrical marathon that was to last some 20 hours over two days. (At over 13 hours of performance time, it is nearly 50 per cent longer than Peter Hall’s Tantalus.) Peter Stein, Germany’s most revered director, had chosen to stage Goethe’s awkward masterpiece uncut. We had some 12,111 lines ahead of us (the longest text of Hamlet is 3,800 lines).
I had always known that my rusty German would not rise to the challenge of Goethe’s poetry. Yet somehow I had expected a miracle of understanding. This is not so foolish as it seems. Watching theatre in a language you cannot understand is like losing a sense: your other senses become heightened. You begin to appreciate how much good actors can communicate in tone and gesture; the language itself acquires a kind of abstract beauty. I can still remember vividly the thrill of watching Euripides’ Bacchae in the original Greek when I was a boy. It’s fortunate, too, that Faust is a spectacular play.
Faust is being staged in the Arena, a converted bus depot in the centre of Berlin. Stein has divided the space with huge black curtains that close off two playing spaces. At the end of each scene or sequence, a herald asks us to move to the next auditorium. Scenes are played in the round, in traverse and front on, with stages of all different sizes. One scene of disputation at court was played with us standing and actors dotted amongst us. Apart from warding off boredom, moving the audience back and forth produces a gratifying feeling of collective endeavour. At the end of the first act of part two (midday Sunday), when Faust and Mephistopheles put on a show for the king and his court, we were led through the dining hall to discover that 400 places had been laid for lunch on long tables. The king and queen ate on the top table, watching the show with us.
My companion did drift off to sleep for a few minutes during the static stretches of classical Walpurgisnacht in part two, a journey through ancient mythology. But it would be difficult to do justice to the inventiveness, energy and wit of Stein’s…