Sisterhood. On “Schwestern im Geiste”, Neuköllner Oper

To start off: I like Judith Butler. I read my fair share of gender theories. Around age 20, 21 I wore my hair in a rather short cut, feminist stuff.

Basically that is why I was excited about the latest musical of the UdK musical/show programme. Their third year has 7 female and 2 male students – which is challenging when thinking about creating a musical especially for them. Peter Lund and the students chose a rather interesting situation: telling part of the story of the Brontë sisters and combining it with three ‘modern’ female characters (like: the Brontës’ today’s equivalents). Okay, so far, so good.

After most of the UdK musicals focused more on the male characters (e.g. with Stimmen im Kopf it was the issue that during the exposition the female characters took action only to give the male characters a better, glamorous entrace – nonetheless the statement was rather gender-independent), I really wanted to like a piece mostly about women.

But let me state something: It wasn’t so much about women.

While we see the historical storyline evolving around the ‘real’ lives of the sisters, their brother, their maid and assistant reverent Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte’s future husband, the today’s storyline focusses a liture class in high school. Two students and a teacher more or less ‘fighting’ their ways through the Brontë-chapter of the curriculum. Obviously the teacher is driven by her own fondness of the Brontë-sisters as women being ahead of their times – which soon makes the unruly of her students, Milly (who has a difficult family backstory, an alcoholic mother and a not really present father), speak up to her and call her a lesbian.
And guess what?
Yes, she REALLY is a lesbian. (that HAS to be THE thing of an educated women teaching about women in literature and women ahead of their time. How could I forget?) Well, since Milly struggles with her grades and probably won’t be able to graduate, she starts a little fling with her teacher and afterwards blackmails her to get through finals – in the end she doesn’t even take the finals because she finally realized high school graduation isn’t for her. Regarding the other student, Aylin, a headscarf wearing kid of Turkish immigrants – she’s smart and hardworking, but her family wants her to marry her cousin (who might look a little bit like Matt Damon) shortly before the graduation so that she won’t be able to take her finals. She – opposite to Milly – comes back in the end to take her exam because her cousin seems to have more understanding of how important the graduation is to her.

In the historic storyline we learn about class distinction (the maid Tabby’s got a thing going with Mr. Nicholls!), not having enough money, loads of writing and a almost always drunk brother, but we also see three sisters who think about morals very different from each other (what I guess is an interesting point and made them centre of this musical in the first place). Anne, the youngest, is really into this whole marriage-love-thing, while Emily is just an unruly female interested much more in nature than in regular (these times) ‘female stuff’ and Charlotte is a rather opaque character – rumours even say that she might as well had been a lesbian back when – and marries Mr. Nicholls after all of her siblings died.

Okay, the plot seems quite understandable, but what bothers me the most is, that although male power is pretty much not shown throughout the show (the two male characters might have some kind of power as male parts of society, but they don’t have any power as characters per se) – there is a general power of men shown/sensable. Most obvious with Aylin’s story (of course, because that’s what the cliché says…), but also with Milly (the father who is or is not there, from time to time..best part of the dialogue: “I want to talk to your parents!” – “As if my father was interested!” – “Then your mother!” – you see what happend here?) and with Lotte, the teacher, as some kind of power which made her decide to be gay or not (and of course on a different level as some kind of male hegemony she tries to deny with being gay but also can’t because….men.).

More than once it is mentioned (in both storylines), that we all (but also: women, because they told us in the first place) live to be loved (by a man). In the second act Lotte comments on a scene like this from the historic storyline (“Bullshit!”), just in order to be made look stupid by Milly seconds later. Well played, well played.

Anyways…just to comclude my rambling about the piece itself: What could have been a very powerful piece for women (both on and off stage, for those performing and those watching) just isn’t. Plus for me it also has the problem that in half of the plot (the today-part) the characters aren’t able to interact singing-wise. So we get one introspective song after song after song (and I have the feeling that it kind of was the same with the other storyline).

But know to the things I really liked. First of all: The music. I liked how it was slightly different from most of the things I’ve heard of Thomas Zaufke, both other UdK musicals and at my ‘old home’ GRIPS Theater. Sadly I can’t say much more about the music (expect for: I liked it), because I am not an educated musician or musicologist and I was too busy having my feminist issues with the plot. But I remeber liking the song about Angria a lot. It gave the whole part (and the siblings) new dynamics and finally gave the more or less rigid characters a reason to move.
Another smart move was giving Branwell so many high notes to sing, because that’s basically what I imaginge a brother of three strong sisters doing….🙂

I also really liked the set – it was like a weird shaped half pipe, the downer part mostly black with some words written on them, the number of them increasing with the height, finally making the whole upper part white – which made it also look like mountains or wild water (they are going to Angria by ship). With the wild water association also came one of my favourite scenes – the death of (YES! a male character) Branwell Brontë who really died of a combination of Bronchitis and kidney failure (due to high alcohol consumption). It looked as if he’d drown in the wild waves of the set, fighting them, being thrown back by them. And this is – at least partly – what actually happenend to him: He drowned in alcohol.

And lastly: I always like going to these things because I like to see how young performers are educated. Basically it is because my education is so different from their, but we all (want to) do theatre – so it’s always great to see what they do when they are still in school. This year is also the first year when the thought hit me about their ages; they are around my age and not like “adult performers” (that was what I saw them as when I first started to go see these UdK productions back with Leben ohne Chris). Anyways – they conquered their piece rather gracefully. My personal stand-outs were Dalma Viczina as Emily, Theresa Scherhag’s fierce acting as teacher Lotte (much older than she actually is, and NO, I didn’t like it because it might have been the most feminist performance. No. I already saw from her performance at the Bundeswettbewerb Gesang finals that she can be a strong actress) and Sabrina Reischl’s comedic talent and timing as Tabby. But for all of them I can only say: I’m very excited to see it again when they’ll revive the show (which they usually do) and to see how much they’ve grown both performing wise and into their characters.

I’m going to end with a little anecdote about fellow audience members: Right in front of me and on my left side sat a couple of older people. They very openly laughed about every “mufti”- and cliché joke about immigrants and froze to solid ice when Milly and Lotte kissed in the last seconds of the first half. Well, even in a city like Berlin and even in a theatre as the Neuköllner Oper you get weird last century audience.

Please, people, read Judith Butler.
Or Alice Schwarzer.
Or something.

For more information about the cast and creative team head over to the website of Neuköllner Oper.

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