Review: Byronic Heroism in ‘Sardanapal’ at the Berlin Volksbühne

Before Friday’s premiere of ‘Sardanapalus’, inspired by Lord Brion’s 1821 play ‘Sardanapalus’, at Berlin’s Volksbühne, the audience was told that one of the show’s stars, Benny Classens, was ‘not doing well’. I found out. In heroic, byronic fashion, the show’s director and lead man Fabian Hinrich saved the night by jumping into the fray and taking on the role of her absent co-star as well as his own.

Hinrichs’ ambition was to revive the English Romantic poet’s play about Sardanapalus, the king of Assyria, who lived in the 7th century B.C. The creed, in Byron’s memorable formulation, seems to have been “eat, drink, love”. The rest is not worth a glass. Instead of pursuing violent conquest and military glory, a powerful monarch with that title enjoys the good life and inspires his subjects to do the same.

In a 2019 article on the republished Hinrichs play on the production website He wrote that Byron’s forgotten drama “deserves a fine replay”.Stunning playback for sure no What the Berlin audience got on Friday night.

An ironic and charismatic performer who has also been credited for the production’s music and sets (along with Anne-Christine Müller), Hinrichs is part of the cult Volksbühne, known for his collaborations with German writer-director René Polesch. It’s a person. Artistic director of the theater. His one of the productions they produced together was a glitzy extravaganza at Berlin’s largest Revue Theater in 2020.

However, this is Hinrichs’ first time directing a show at Volksbuhne. Over the course of his two hours without a break, the production feels dramaturgically chaotic.

Far from being a faithful rendition of Byron’s five-act tragedy, Hinrichs’ rendition is essentially a revue. It is reminiscent of some of Volksbuhne’s other recent outings, such as Florentina Holzinger’s “Ophelia’s Got Talent” and Constanza Macras’ “Drama”. Byron’s most sustained involvement with his work and themes corny youtube tribute video A lot of touching words projected on the stage during the show.

The night gets off to a slow start, followed by disjointed musical numbers. Both live (funny sax solo) and canned (Barry White’s “Let the Music Play”). The Hinrichs ecstatically dance to disco classics before singing Schubert songs.

But before arriving in ancient Mesopotamia, I heard Hinrich chatting with the cashier (and holding up the checkout line) at 5am in a Munich supermarket. He wants to know what she thinks while she scans items for eight hours a day. Actress Lilith Stangenberg begins her sensual monologue about her love of sea and sand. A striking and eccentric comedian, Stangenberg returns later in the evening as the enslaved Greek woman Myrrh, Sardanapalus’ lover.

After waiting an hour in the supermarket checkout line, we finally made it to the drama of Assyria and Byron. Standing in for the absent star on opening night, Hinrichs clutched the script and proclaimed the lofty poetry of the gourmet monarch. (Crissence’s name was dropped from the “Sardanapal” program for subsequent performances and was reported by local news media. guessed about the rift between actor and director. A Volksbühne spokesperson said Claessens was unwell. )

Under these trying conditions, Hinrichs’ delivery was strong and somewhat deflated. His characteristically brief tone was unmistakable. He was wide-eyed but world-weary, penetrating with grace and absurd humor. But in the context of the disjointed and tortuous work, even Hinrichs’ performance became maddening.

Still, there were moments of relief. It was great to see Volksbuehne’s longtime music director, Lord Henry, back in front of the main stage and piano. He accompanies Hinrichs as the actor walks through Schubert, performs as a soloist in the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto, and operates his polisher on the floor of the supermarket scene. A late-night pixie ballet for dancers in wavy white costumes was the high point, as was the all-too-brief scene in which acrobat Christine Wunderlich recites a monologue during an aerobic silk performance. and his orchestra of the local high school youth accompanied Sir Henri in Chopin. Returning late at night, Philip played his glass and capped off the night with Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

In many ways, ‘Sardanapalus’ felt like a missed opportunity for Volksbuehne. Volksbuhne is slowly regaining its footing after several very difficult years. The premiere of “Monosau” in February was a vibrant jolt of theatrical madness and felt like proof of a new model of theater collective leadership. Let’s hope ‘Sardanapal’ isn’t such a big setback for an institution that finally seemed to be on the road to recovery.


Until May 30th at the Volksbuhne Theater in Berlin. www.volksbuehne.berlin.

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