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‘Richard III’ In Berlin Bodes Cultural Spring

“Now is the winter of our Missvergnuegen'”?

No such bastard corruptions of the Bard are to be expected when Berlin’s Schlosspark Theater re-opens this week with “Richard III” – and the man at the helm is the reason why.

However guttural and clunky German sounds to the uninitiated ear, it is an idiom alive with the form and trappings of chivalrous discourse – important for performing Shakespeare’s histories. And the version being presented by Heribert Sasse, the theater’s new manager, play director and lead actor, aspires to greater heights than merely proving that Shakespeare can be done in German.

Sasse aims to broaden the horizons of German-speaking theater altogether by reinstating “the Berlin-Prague connection.” That axis flourished in the 1920s under the influence of such greats as Max Reinhardt and served as a refuge for Jewish theater artists late into the ’30s. Should “Richard” prove successful enough to launch the Prague project, it would at the same time serve the cultural reunification of East and West – an effort which has proved much more difficult than tearing down walls.

It was Reinhardt, explains Sasse, who attracted some of Europe’s finest actors to the stage of the Deutsches Theater in Prague because “the German spoken in Prague, was the theatrical German of the day.”

Sasse won a municipal concession in mid-January to quasi-privatize the Schlosspark Theater in Berlin’s southern Steglitz district, an outcome partially based on his parallel plans to resurrect the Deutsches Theater. The original building where Reinhardt worked is now Prague’s enormous opera house, but Sasse has found a new location in the Divadlo na Starem meste (“Theater in the Old City”) near Wenceslas Square. In July, the current 17-member cast of “Richard III” will travel there, and ultimately the goal is to have German-language troupes in both cities regularly paying reciprocal visits to each other’s venues.

“We can’t sit here the whole time and talk about East and West getting closer without doing anything,” Sasse says of the project. “It may be a small step, but it’s still better than nothing.”

Large in historical scope, the project entails a considerably smaller set of responsibilities for the 49-year-old Sasse, who was previously executive director of the largest-staged theater in Europe, Berlin’s now defunct Staatliche Schauspielbuehnen. The state-owned ensemble boasted 1,250 seats in its hey-day and combined three venues: the famous Schiller Theater, its experimental workshop and the Schlosspark Theater. The 150-actor operation, which ran at an annual budget of DM42.5 million ($30 million) busied 700 employees including a full-time armorer.

But bookings dropped by more than half following Sasse’s departure in 1990. Three years later, Berlin’s municipal government, which spends 1.1 billion Deutsche marks ($785 million) a year on culture, shuttered all three institutions. Sasse, who had made a name for himself by rescuing Berlin’s Renaissance Theater in the early ’80s, now was attacked for abandoning the Staatliche Schauspielbuehnen. If his appointment at age 39 to helm the state-run theaters seemed the crowning achievement of a wunder-kind, his decision to throw in the towel after five years was taken by some as an ungrateful snub.

But Sasse says that differences with the city’s cultural politicians over how to manage a theater, particularly one of that size, was chief among the reasons for his personal disillusionment. They wanted to make certain decisions by committee, he said, while he wanted to rule by benevolent fiat; they wanted specialty items in the Schiller Theater, he didn’t want to lose the public; they wanted to keep the theaters state property, he wanted to turn it into a limited liability company.

In the end, Sasse traded his kingdom for a horse and, five years after walking out, he runs the 465-seat Schlosspark Theater himself. It is now a limited liability company with about DM1.5 million ($1 million) in local subsidies, and Sasse says he chose “Richard III” because he wanted to make a big splash after the theater’s two years of down time. The play has not been performed here in 16 years and rarely at so small a venue.

“Here I needn’t shout and bellow,” the Austrian native said, describing the impact of the smaller setting on the portrayal of Richard.

If anything, in fact, the reduced scale of the Schlosspark theater may endear local audiences all the more to the subtlety of Sasse’s interpretation. But beyond commercial success here, Sasse’s comeback can only truly be such if he realizes his loftier goal: to reconcile through art what war has torn asunder and politics could never breach.

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