Liz Gill travels to Berlin to see this spectacular show which is a celebration of freedom and diversity
When you have the biggest stage in the world you have to have a show to match it and the producers of VIVID at Berlin’s Palast Theatre have certainly gone for the more is more approach.
The £10.5m show has an ensemble of over 100 performers including 60 dancers plus a 20 strong band and even greater numbers backstage to coordinate this extraordinary spectacle of sound and colour and movement.
To be honest you wouldn’t go for the plot which is pretty preposterous involving a young girl who is transformed into an android and her subsequent journey to shake off her constraints and explore all the possibilities life has to offer. It is meant to be a parable about how society and its institutions can restrict our individuality and limit our opportunities. But even though it is partly in English as well as German and there is a glossy programme to help you understand what is going on, it’s still all rather bewildering.
But that’s not the point. The story is mainly a device on which to hang thrilling choreography, delightful music, playful comedy and amazing costumes crowned by headdresses designed by Irish milliner Philip Treacy which are works of art in their own right.
There are also four circus acts: four contortionists, three aerialists, two of whom are known as the Iron Jaw Act because at one point they hang in mid-air holding on only by their teeth, and four acrobats in the Double Wheels of Steel Act. So nerve-shredding is this that you almost need to watch it through your fingers: just when you think they cannot attempt anything even more ridiculously dangerous they do – and then they do it again.
The fact that the contortionists are from Mongolia, the aerialists from Uzbekistan and the acrobats from Equador is a measure of the show’s internationalism – the performers speak 27 different languages – and its inclusivity.
As the theatre’s general director and producer Dr. Berndt Schmidt tells us, the company includes people with disabilities, different ethnicities and sexual orientations and of all faiths and none. There are no individual stars: the emphasis is on the company.
VIVID, he says, is a ‘declaration of love of life’ and a celebration of freedom and diversity. “We want to appreciate, stand up for and respect one another. We want to be a friendly presence in Germany.”
The message is particularly important, he adds, not just in light of the country’s past, but also in light of the recent resurgent of the extreme right-wing in certain areas, polling up to 40 per cent of the vote there.
The show doesn’t hammer home its ideals to the 500,000 people who come every year, 40 per cent of them foreigners, with a demographic which includes supermarket workers and bank managers and it’s possible, of course, to enjoy VIVID simply as a fun and feel-good night out.
But Dr. Schmidt’s words continue to resonate with me. “We want to show that liberty, diversity and democracy which in some parts of our country are in danger, do mean something. In the UK your democracy has always been there but we’re aware it can disappear very fast. We have two dictatorships behind us. Here we don’t trust our institutions as sometimes they’re nice and sometimes they’re not.”
In fact the history of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, to give it its full name, reflects the changing fortunes of both Berlin and Germany itself. Director and impresario Max Reinhardt conceived the original Grosse Schauspielhaus (Great Theatre) after WWI to brighten the lives and extend the horizons of a population humiliated and traumatised by war. It flourished in the Roaring Twenties with audiences of up to 5,000 drawn to the cabarets and circuses and appearances by stars such as Marlene Dietrich.
The rise of the Nazis – and the departure of Reinhardt who was Jewish to Britain and then America – brought it under state control with Goebbels keen on it as a propaganda vehicle until the closure of all theatres in 1943 as part of throwing everything into the war effort.
The defeat of Hitler and the inclusion of the theatre in a divided Berlin into the German Democratic Republic meant it remained a vehicle for political propaganda only this time for Communism. So when the original building became unfit for purpose the GDR built an extravagant new one just across the road in 1984 to be a similarly grand showcase.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany gave it back the local audiences it had lost and opened it up to the West but it was only about ten years ago that it hit on its current winning format.
VIVID was two years in the making with the team spread across 15 cities in five time zones working by email and video conferencing before they even got to rehearse on the 2,800 sq m stage. It will run for another 18 months with a member of the creative team watching every performance to make sure nothing falters or looks tired.
The city of Berlin owns the Palast so there is some public subsidy meaning that seats can start at Euro20. The most expensive are Euro250 for the Sky Lounge with butler service but the 2,000 seat auditorium is so spacious and well designed that it looked to me as if all sight lines were good.
Cheap, frequent, less than two hours long flights to Berlin and a 30 minute rail link from the airport to the city centre mean getting to see a show is easy. It might even, for those clever at finding the right flight times, be possible to nip over early morning, catch a matinee and come back that night but that would be to miss out on what else the city has to offer which is a great deal.
We only had time for a half-day walking and public transport tour but we covered a lot of ground both literally and metaphorically: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, Alexanderplatz, the largest city square in Germany with its 368m tower, (built in 1969 to be symbol of socialist superiority over the West), the trendy Hackescher market, a hub of creativity and buzzing nightlife, and the longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall, a mural and graffiti-covered 1.3k stretch known as East Side Gallery, the site of Hitler’s Bunker, a deliberately low-key car park to avoid any danger of it becoming a place of pilgrimage and the sombre and imposing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
We saw Museum Island from the banks of the River Spree but obviously did not have time to visit its major attractions, never mind any of the city’s 180 other museums, 400 galleries or three opera houses, but I did on the way back to the hotel manage to fit in a visit to the nearby magnificent cathedral and climb its 267 steps for a panoramic view out over the huge dome.
Our tour was much enhanced by our guide Sabena being a local and her personal reminiscences including memories of visits to the East as a child – Western Berliners were allowed in for a 25 deutsche mark fee. “But it was like a black and white movie and there was nothing to spend your money on.”
And endearingly she confessed to having slept through the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, waking next day to excited phone calls from friends and a changed world.