Die Jungfrau von
Orleans by Frederich von Schiller at the Berliner Ensemble,
Inszenierung: Claus Peymann
Bühne: Karl-Ernst Herrmann
Kostüme: Maria-Elena Amos
Dramaturgie: Jutta Ferbers
Mit: Sonja Grüntzig, Franziska Junge, Corinna Kirchhoff, Charlotte Müller, Gitte Reppin; Andreas Christ, Peter Fitz, Karsten Gaul, Boris Jacoby, Roman Kaminski, Michael Kinkel, Peter Luppa, Detlef Lutz, Christopher Nell, Thomas Niehaus, Michael Rothmann, Norman Schenk, Marko Schmidt, Veit Schubert, Ronny Tomiska, Georgios Tsivanoglou, Axel Werner, Thomas Wittmann
by Paul Murphy
The Berliner Ensemble is Berlin’s premier theatre, originated by Bertolt Brecht (a statue of Brecht sits outside the theatre. Brecht is actually sitting, clad in the kind of clothes people wear in gaols or mental hospitals.) and Helene Weigel in 1949. Inside the theatre seems entirely baroque, charming, quite contrary to my expectations which were of some kind of robustly simple workers’ theatre. If Brecht created this theatre, then his intention was that it should be a Cathedral of High Art, not a place to perform work0073 of socialist realism. It is defined by its décor or architecture as a typical, dare I say, (yes I dare) bourgeois theatre. I found that very surprising, perhaps even shocking. Perhaps this belies my own Lutheran background or predilections, rejecting baroque, ornate surfaces for things more functional. I don’t think a theatre is necessarily a place of religious devotion, but I did feel like dressing up to the occasion. We know from history that the origins of drama are in religious rites. The earliest exponents of drama were to provide a catharsis or purgation of emotions to accompany important historical or mythical events for the purposes of the entire community.
Schiller’s drama is set towards the end of the Hundred Years War, after the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt, after a series of French humiliations at the hands of the English. Joan is a French prophet, prophetic destiny is revealed to her in visions, ecstasies, voices. The voices of angels impel her to liberate France from the English. The rest of the story is very well know; her military triumphs, the Siege of Orleans, Reims, her martyrdom at Rouen, subsequent canonisation. Like many revolutionaries, Joan’s apotheosis was entirely posthumous. Her trial by the English regent, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, had a political motivation.
It is possible that she was mentally ill and inspired, but the people of her day probably suspected her of being a witch. (telling us more about the people of Joan’s time than about Joan herself) Joan is a woman fulfilling a man’s role as a military leader which leads us to suspect that Joan was Gay, thus explaining all the fuss about her visions and voices. However, Queer Joan of Arc is another play that the Berliner Ensemble doesn’t attempt to make coherence of. Perhaps that is a good thing, a post-modern impression of Joan might dissolve the boundaries of those tropes of feminity and militarism that the playwright, directors of this production wish us to take seriously. The play has to be set in the context of Schiller’s times, clearly deals with the revolutionary impetus of the French Revolution. Joan is as much a symbol of France, as of the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. The play therefore sets up a double vision, colliding historical epochs. Joan has been invoked by all French politicians since Napoleon, many artists, musicans, writers, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Brecht have created artworks about her life.
The style of décor used by the Berliner Ensemble is stark, reduced, functional. Scenes consist of light and dark contrasts, symbols appear signalling changes. A skull and crossbones appears signifying war. A crown is suspended over the stage. Eventually its purpose becomes obvious when Charles VII is crowned at Reims after a series of significant victories made possible by the inspired leadership of Joan. The problem with this production is that it is too literal, obvious, predictable. There is nothing that signifies any historical epoch shift. A naïve reader would assume that Schiller was a contemporary of Joan, not someone living hundreds of years in the future. A naïve reader might assume that Joan was a heroine of France, but she was regarded (in the propaganda history written by English historians and Shakespeare) as a witch or miscreant for hundreds of years after her death. Her subsequent canonisation only occurred in 1920, just less than 500 years after her death. Obviously the play cannot perform every task on behalf of the viewer but this play could have done a little more to underline some of these contrasts and disjunctions. Nothing is really done to suggest that this is anything but an entirely literal production of a great German play by a great German writer at a great German theatre in a chocolate box setting. For all that the production of this play by the Berliner Ensemble cast is undoubtedly professional in the sense that performances of Shakespeare by the RSC are professional. It doesn’t really fulfill any of Bertolt Brecht’s main tenets about theatre. In fact it might be said that it betrays them. Brecht was never a card carrying member of the Communist Party, nor was he apolitical either. Schiller’s play isn’t really dealt with in any thorough, intellectual sense but neither is this merely another Cats or Spamalot. No, Berlin hasn’t quite hit the bottom of the barrel in the sense that London has. There still persists here a tradition of intellectualism in theatre that has perhaps ceased to be very visible in anything but the London fringe. I’d certainly recommend that viewers see the Berliner Ensembles production of die Jungfrau von Orleans as a starting point to understanding and thinking about this play.