The October Revolution happened almost one hundred years ago and the Agit-Prop form forged in those heady Bolshevik days, influenced many theatre makers including Brecht, Piscator, the 1930s “Living Newspaper” pieces by the US Federal Theatre Project and more lately a style called Verbatim Theatre. But whereas Agit-Prop focuses on the contemporaneously factual, using news-bulletin elements in its goal of stirring political action, Verbatim Theatre prioritises the personal, if not over the political, then as the filter through which all experience must be understood. Though the pieces often pivot around a significant social phenomenon, such as the LA Riots in the works created by Anna Deveare Smith or the series of terrible accidents on the privatised UK rail network in The Permanent Way by David Hare, the text is intensively subjective, often transcribed precisely from recorded interviews (hence verbatim) with actors speaking the words of the contributors. In some pieces, however, the person on stage is entirely authentic, indivisible from the words they are speaking. “Atlas des Kommunismus” at Gorki Theater, Berlin is this, political tumult voiced through first-hand experience.
My interest in this piece was first aroused by one of the typically arresting posters Gorki seem to specialise in, in this case an older woman, dressed in working dungarees, red headscarf and sunshades standing in militant defiance atop a Berlin street-cafe table, staring out at us and looming over a multi-generational set of women and girls. Something about the certainty and challenge of the older woman’s posture in contrast with the slightly distracted passivity of the others in the photograph made me want to know more, along with the title of course.
As one of the performers remarks near the end of the play, an atlas promises a global perspective, where you expect to see the whole world, but the piece itself is, understandably, more geographically limited. Aside from fleeting moments in Australia and Vietnam, the recollections are all from Germany. And this highlights another aspect of verbatim theatre, it is mostly recollection, for life has to have been lived to be recounted. But with the action ranging from the 1930s to the present day, the piece still covers a lot of ground and the stories are all strong.
The staging is basic but energised. The Gorki is transformed into a traverse arrangement, with banks of audience facing each other across a central stage. There’s great inventive use of live camera to solve the problem of facing both ways, literally and metaphorically – East-West, past-present, left-right – and close-ups of filmed faces and the use of projected photographs give depth and richness to what we’re experiencing. There’s an eclectic use of music too: GDR pop and pioneer songs, as well as punk and Brechtian lament.
So what of the actual stories and content? The cast spans seven decades, the youngest around 9 years old, the oldest in her eighties and none, apart from Ruth Reinecke, who is also playing herself, are professional actors. To a large extent, the arc of the piece hinges around a before and after trajectory: Before and after Die Wende. Interestingly however, this neat duality doesn’t extent to the participants’ feelings about Communism, the central subject matter. There are many shades of grey, or rather red. We meet a German/Polish Jewish ex-Stasi informant (Salomea Genin) who lived to regret her role as state spy but expresses deep foreboding as the ads go up all over Mitte at the close of the eighties, heralding the onslaught of “the capitalism I’d fought against all my life.” A professional interpreter (Monika Zimmering) sees her vibrant career crumble along with die Mauer as she is forced to piece together a more curtailed existence. Jana Schlosser sings a song that got her and her punk band Namenlos thrown into DDR prison but the title and lyrics, “Nazis back in East Berlin” blasts ever truer in our present reality. But it is the story told by Mai-Phuong Kollath that resonated most for me. Brought to Rostock from Vietnam, she tells of conditions, curfews and confiscations that seriously questioned presumed notions of international comradeship and indicate vividly the flawed nature of the political decision-making at the time. Kollath tells how the Mauerfall tore away most of the last vestiges of tolerance and made things even worse. But she fought back, is here and though some members of the audience groaned at her cheesy choice of DDR peace ballad, her painful experiences have clearly not dented her hopes for a greater humanity. And it is when 16 year-old activist daughter of Berlin leftists, Helena Simon, talks of her involvement in the siege of Ohlauer Strasse, the refugees struggle and the brutality of the police that a sense of past bequeathing the present is felt. For while challenges seem to repeat themselves, there are also still people fighting for the better world we can all share. Tucké Royale, a gay activist, in response to the statement that people are turning to the AfD, says “But we are the people their children will need to turn to.” Helena Simon says her dream is of a world with “no nationalities, no borders” and that an ism for this has yet to be invented.
No piece could ever really encompass the multifarious manifestations of communism, or even perhaps agree if it’s ever actually physically existed, but a unifying feature throughout this work by director Lola Arias is a deeply felt aspiration that people can come together in support and mutual respect, create something and share in its success. Whatever you feel about the prospects of social change or stagnation, the answer for me was on the cobbles of Unter den Linden, just metres from Gorki – a painted slogan in German: “Nationalism is No Alternative”.
Carol McGuigan Berlin, October 2016
Atlas des Kommunismus is playing again at the Gorki Theater on 14th and 15th November 2016