The Bluffers Guide To: Frank Castorf

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 27 October 2011 | 9:30:00 pm


Frank Castorf
UPDATE: Never say you didn't hear it here first - unless you didn't. As discussed back in July 2011, 2013's Bayreuth Ring will be in the hands of Frank Castorf (see here). Once again, I present the bluffers guide to all things Castorf. You'll be in demand at your next Wagner Society meeting - maybe


Yes that Frank Castorf. Nearly as well known as Wim Wenders of course and needs no introduction we are sure.

What? You have never heard of him? The man whos best productions have been called "illogical", "rejecting a linear narrative"? The man who describes himself as an “quarrelsome” individual" - a sort of German version of the UK's  "angry young man" - but not that young? The Director keen to use multimidia in his stage productions; in a manner reminiscent of "reality TV shows? The man who adopted Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and had his actors sing songs by Britney Spears. You know, that Frank Castof. The man who's Meistersinger production involved him interpenetrating it with readings from Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer who escaped Nazi Germany and hanged himself in a New York; and wherein he replaced the orchestra with two pianos and a chorus made up of untrained stage hands? What? You have never heard of him? Surely not? Very well then, just for you:

The Wagnerian's Guide To Bluffing Your Way Through A Conversation About Frank Castorf

"WHEN the director Frank Castorf was being considered to head Berlin’s second largest state-owned theater in 1991, the cultural powerbroker Ivan Nagel urged the German Senate to take a risk on him and his politically minded troupe, saying, “In three years they will either be dead or famous". SALLY McGRANE - New York Times

"Under his direction, actors ignored huge portions of the classical texts they performed, stripped naked, screamed their lines for the duration of five-hour productions, got drunk onstage, dropped out of character, conducted private fights, tossed paint at their public, saw a third of the audience walk out as they spoke two lines at an excruciatingly slow pace, may or may not have induced a theatergoer to drink urine, threw potato salad, immersed themselves in water, recited newspaper reports of Hitler’s last peacetime birthday party, told bad jokes, called the audience East German sellouts and appeared to but did not kill a mouse" SALLY McGRANE - New York Times

“In the last years he’s had less success,” said Barbara Burckhardt, an editor at Theaterheute. “His method is exhausted".

"Greed" - A film by Frank Castorf (complete. German with Eng subs)


Biography from The Geothe Institut

Frank Castorf’s best theatre evenings are demanding, long, complex, loud, exalted and illogical. They reject a linear narrative and conclusive interpretations. Psychological interpretation of characters is anathema to the manager of the Berliner Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and undisturbed acting is right next to the trivialisation of reality by art as an object of hate. For almost fifteen years now, this concentrated “anti” position has resulted in the most important contemporary theatre in Germany.

The tremendous energy that characterises Castorf’s productions comes from the confrontation of harmony and violence. When he was a young director in the GDR, bureaucratic socialism provided the first opposition for Castorf’s anger. Banished to Anklam in the provinces, he continued to offend against the tolerated canon of hidden criticism of the system that was established in East German theatre until he was allowed to produce in the West. After Unification his revulsion at false common features, and especially of the “all’s well” politics of victorious capitalism, exploded. Nowhere in the art of the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall was the smile of the state power so fiercely confronted with the depressing reality of the system take-over as in Castorf’s theatre.

For example, in 1990 he produced Schiller’s “The Robbers” as a requiem to the GDR that both expressed uproar about the take-over and anger about the “creeping depression” of the East Germans. Ranging from pubescent, naked rebellion and offending the audience right up to montages of Schiller, Hegel and de Sade, the aggressive spectacle already unpacked the whole toolbox of Castorf's discontent. He made violating rules into a principle and developed it into a theatre that is permitted to do everything and ought to do nothing. And he transferred this principle to other social situations when the merger of the GDR into the consumer society faded historically as a subject.

Thanks to his tremendous creative energy and an ensemble of exceptional actors who could fulfil intellectual provocations as shrill satire, Castorf subjected Shakespeare and Hauptmann, Dostoyevsky and Tennessee Williams to radical reworkings. Flying potato salad and inserted theoretical texts, urinating in zinc buckets and the trials of hysterical family life were followed by improvised speeches to the audience or enacted subconscious with plenty of slapstick. Booming music and inserted films, tedious waiting that ends with the landing of a toy helicopter or nude madness with a boa around the actor’s neck – Castorf uses elements like this to assemble his snotty view of the world as theatre. Only the following agenda in the director’s words applied: “To do away with unambiguities, to cut the ground from under the feet of meanings – that’s what I always wanted to do!”

The many failed echoes of his method showed that this devaluing of harmony and meaning only works thanks to Castorf's constructive exceptional spirit. The deconstruction fashions, that were declared the trend of the nineties in his name, only led to a dissolution of the form among many emulators. But with Castorf the permanent, often cynical commenting on what is happening on the stage as part of the production resulted in a genuine challenge to intellect and humour. Even marathon evenings lasting many hours, such as “The Idiot” or “The Demons”, which transferred the Russian melancholy to a charged metropolitan atmosphere in the shabby bungalow aesthetics of his sympathetic set designer Bert Neumann, created an exciting enjoyment of excessive demands.

In recent years, the principle of “effort as purification” has been intensified by Castorf once again doubling the image and narrative levels on the stage with film teams. However, his work seems to have increasingly run out of control, with the range of venues where it is performed growing ever more diverse and the floods of images that flow through it becoming ever less coherent. Productions such as “Cocaine” (2004), which was based on the novel by Pitigrilli and had a stage set designed by the artist Jonathan Meese, or “My Snow Queen” (2005), which was based on the work of Hans Christian Andersen, dissipated their initial impetus in their incoherent deployment of provocative theatrical techniques. By 2006, when Castorf turned to Brecht and obscured “In the Jungle of the Cities” behind a chaotic jumble of contemporary slapstick and political finger-wagging, it had become evident that he was facing an artistic crisis. Maybe the world has moved on and Frank Castorf has run out of ideas. Or maybe the years of repetition have made the way he breaks the rules in his productions an example of exactly the kind of thing Castorf always wanted to struggle against: something harmonious and thoroughly predictable.

Till Briegleb