Almost 100 years ago, on 29th September, 1922, the Münchner Kammerspiele presented the world premiere of Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night) – the first play by Bertolt Brecht that was ever put on stage. Little has remained of that remarkable evening except for a few photographs and director Christopher Rüping keeps wondering what the world premiere might have looked like. Determined to use theatre as a time machine, he decides to try and recapture the spirit of the original without turning his production into a museum piece. He starts off by copying the style of almost 100 years ago, reviving the cast of a bygone era, thereby reinventing the world premiere.

Courtesy of Julian Bauman.

Courtesy of Julian Bauman.

A soldier returns from the war and his first stop is the home of his former lover. But shortly before his arrival, Anna has got engaged to another man who never made it to the front – Murk, a war-profiteer who is planning to modernise the factory of Anna’s father. When the soldier, Andreas Kragler, realises that Anna is lost to him, he leaves and makes his way to the city to join the Spartacist Uprising against the repressive conservative government. The situation is becoming increasingly violent and shots are being fired as the insurgents attempt to take over the newspaper district. Meanwhile Anna reconsiders and hurries to the newspaper district to win Andreas back. When Kragler sees Anna it takes him only a minute before he turns his back on the revolution and goes home with his woman to a “big, white bed”.

Bertolt Brecht was only twenty years old when he wrote his second play in 1919, Baal being the first. Trommeln in der Nacht was inspired by the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 and the assassination of socialist Kurt Eisner in Munich by German nationalist Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley on 21 February 1919 which resulted in the establishment of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic and parliament. Brecht was never satisfied with this early play because his anti-hero Kragler chooses to withdraw into his private idyll instead of joining the fight for a better world. Despite his dismissal of this play, Brecht never changed the ending. Director Christopher Rüpling dares to reimagine Brecht’s original ending, asking what would happen if Kragler did not leave with Anna. He presents two different endings – the original ending as written in the play and an alternative ending, having Krager abandon Anna to lead the revolution, shown in alternate performances.

Just like 95 years ago, the auditorium is decked with posters stating “Glotzt nicht so romantisch” (Don’t stare so romantically). There are only components of the set on the rather bare stage. Nils Kahnwald takes us back in time to the world premiere, reciting Lion Feuchtwanger’s text praising the original production and a new talent, Bert Brecht. Whilst the cast are changing into their costumes, stagehands create the set in front of an intrigued audience. A blood-red cardboard moon is shining over a rather sketchy Berlin as the action unfolds in a bourgeois living room (stage design by Jonathan Mertz).

In the beginning of the performance, Rüping presents a bourgeois world with clear rules and boundaries. He adheres to a strict form including a fourth wall. The acting style of the first act is declamatory and full of pathos, emulating the actors of yesteryear. The cast avoid slipping into parody by taking this task quite seriously. Wiebke Puls‘s performance as Anna’s mother is very rigid and intentionally funny whilst Hannes Hellmann impresses as the pragmatic patriarch, trying to convince his daughter that she should forget about Kragler who is “rotting and decaying” in some unknown grave. Nils Kahnwald’s Murk resembles a matinee idol complete with Bel Ami moustache whilst wooing the fairly rebellious Anna as portrayed by Wiebke Mollenhauer. Christian Löber very much resembles a corpse as he enters Anna’s home, covered in mud. Right from the start, Damien Rebgetz as the journalist Babusch is somewhat alien in this bourgeois society and essential to bringing the production into the here and now as he is pushing a jukebox on stage and singing Michael Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean” and “I Shot the Sheriff”.

As the production is gradually taken into the present during the second and third act, the fourth act is a complete departure from the original. The backdrop has disappeared, columns of glaring neon lights come down from the ceiling whilst the cast, dressed in plastic dresses, speak Brecht’s words as a chorus. We watch Krager escaping a hero’s death. This anti-hero prefers the “big white bed”, a life in bourgeois bliss to sacrificing himself for some cause. Andreas Krager is typical of those whose passivity and withdrawal into the private sphere helped Hitler’s rise to power. He abandons his comrades and joins his lover Anna while Smetana’s “The Moldau” is being played, slowly distorted and drowned out by Damien Redgetz’s rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” before the stage design is torn down and shredded. An amazing reimagination of a Brecht classic. 4/5

Review written by Carolin Kopplin.

Trommeln in der Nacht will next be shown on 1 and 12 January 2018. For more information on the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop