Before the curtain went up at Berlin’s Volksbühne for the Friday premiere of ‘Sardanapal’, inspired by Lord Bryon’s 1821 play ‘Sardanapalus’, the audience learned that one of the show’s protagonists, Benny Claessens, was ‘not doing well’. In heroic, Byronic fashion, director and protagonist Fabian Hinrichs saved the evening by throwing himself into the fray and assuming the role of his absent co-star along with his own.
And so the show – a labor of love bordering on silliness – went on. It seems that Hinrichs’ ambition is to revive the English romantic poet’s shipping drama about Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king who lived in the 7th century BC. The rest is worth nothing.” Instead of chasing violent conquest and martial glory, the mighty monarch enjoys the title of the good life and inspires his subjects to do the same.
In a 2019 article about Hinrichs’ play that was republished on the production’s website, he writes that Byron’s forgotten drama “deserves a wonderful rebirth”. A wonderful rebirth is certain not what the Berlin public got on Friday night.
An acerbic and charismatic performer who is also credited with the production’s music and sets (along with Ann-Christine Müller), Hinrichs is a cult figure at the Volksbühne, known for his collaborations with René Pollesch, the German writer-director who is the theater’s artistic director. One of their joint productions was a dazzling extravaganza at Berlin’s largest revue theater in 2020.
But this is Hinrichs’ first time directing a show at the Volksbühne; over the course of its uninterrupted two hours, the production feels dramaturgically adrift.
Far from being a faithful staging of Byron’s five-act tragedy, Hinrichs’ staging is essentially a revue. It recalls several other recent performances by the Volksbühne, including Florentina Holzinger’s “Ophelia’s Got Talent” and Constanza Macras’ “Drama”, which also combine dialogue, music and dance in messy, hard-to-classify evenings. The most enduring engagement we get with Byron’s work and themes is a corny YouTube tribute video of inspirational quotes projected onto the stage during the show.
The evening starts slowly, with a series of loose musical numbers, both live (an enthusiasm-filled saxophone solo) and canned (Barry White’s “Let the Music Play”). Hinrichs dances ecstatically to the disco classic before singing a Schubert song.
But before we reach ancient Mesopotamia, we find ourselves in a supermarket in Munich at 5 a.m., listening to Hinrichs chat with the cashier (and hold up the till). What is she thinking about when she scans items for eight hours a day, he wants to know. Actress Lilith Stangenberg unleashes a lusty monologue about her love of the sea and sand. Stangenberg, a striking and eccentric comedienne, returns later in the evening as Myrrha, an enslaved Greek woman who is Sardanapalus’ lover.
After an hour of queuing at the supermarket checkout, we finally get to Assyria and Byron’s drama. On opening night, Hinrichs, filling in for his absent star, held the script in his hand as he recited the bon vivant’s lofty verse. (Claessens’ name has been removed from the “Sardanapal” program for subsequent performances, and local news media have speculated about a rift between the actor and director; a Volksbühne spokeswoman said Claessens is unwell.)
Under these trying circumstances, Hinrichs’ delivery was both muscular and somehow deflated. His trademark laconic tone was unmistakable: wide-eyed yet world-weary, and laced with grace and absurd humour. But in the context of a disjointed and meandering production, even Hinrichs’ performance became irritating.
Still, there were some moments of respite. It was great to find the old music director of the Volksbühne, Sir Henry, back on the main stage and at his piano. He accompanies Hinrichs as the actor works his way through the Schubert, performs as a soloist in the first movement of a Chopin piano concerto and even operates a floor cleaning machine on stage in the supermarket scene. The highlight was a late-night fairytale ballet for female dancers in billowing white costumes, as well as the lovely, all-too-short scene in which acrobat Christine Wunderlich recited a monologue during an aerobic silk performance. And a youth orchestra from a local high school joined Sir Henry at the Chopin: it came back later in the evening to perform some Philip Glass, and the night ended with (why not?) Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
In more ways than one, “Sardanapal” felt like a missed opportunity for the Volksbühne, which is slowly getting back on track after a few extremely rocky years. The February premiere of ‘Die Monosau’ was a bracing jolt of theatrical frenzy that felt like an affirmation of the theatre’s new model of collective leadership. I hope ‘Sardanapal’ isn’t too much of a setback for an institution that finally seemed to be on the road to recovery.
Until May 30 at the Volksbühne theater in Berlin; www.volksbühne.berlin.