Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hamburg Theater

Hamburg is a city of theaters.

Befitting its status as the wealthiest city in the European Union, Hamburg is the theater capital of Germany (with some assistance from the fact that Hamburg is also the media capital of Germany—and suffers from lots of bad weather, which tends to foster indoor activity).

There are three enormous state-owned theaters in Hamburg, each employing literally hundreds of persons full-time.

One of the state-owned theaters, of course, is the Hamburg State Opera.

The other two state-owned theaters are professional theater companies, performing year-round, each offering a vast repertory of plays over the course of a year.

The Deutsches Schauspielhaus is the largest and most beautiful theater in Germany used for spoken drama, and it houses Germany’s most prominent resident theater company. Its repertory concentrates on the classics.

Designed in Neo-Baroque style by the Viennese partnership of Fellner and Helmer, the most famous theatrical architects of the day, the Schauspielhaus originally contained over 1800 seats. It opened its doors in 1900, and originally operated as a private theater with a subscription audience.

The theater was nationalized when the National Socialists came to power, and it has been a state-operated and state-subsidized theater ever since.

The theater escaped serious damage during World War II, but for three years after the war the building was requisitioned by British occupying forces and only returned to its original function in 1948. Within a decade, the theater had re-assumed its position as Germany’s finest theater company. All of the great European directors have worked in the theater, even the great Giorgio Strehler.

In 1984, the rococo red-plush-and-gold auditorium was scrupulously reconstructed pursuant to the original designs. In addition to the main auditorium, the building has two smaller stages. Busts of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Kleist are displayed in the public promenades, reminders of Germany’s great theatrical heritage.

The Thalia Theater is Hamburg’s other large-scale state-owned theater company for spoken drama. It is one of the oldest theater companies in Germany, and one of the finest. With a staff of 340, the company stages 40 plays in repertory each year, nine of which are new productions. Its repertory is more contemporary than the repertory of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus.

The theater was founded in 1843 and named after the muse Thalia. The present Neo-Classical building opened in 1912. Like the nearby Deutsches Schauspielhaus, the Thalia Theater was nationalized in the 1930’s.

In addition to its main stage, the Thalia Theater presents repertory performances in another, smaller theater in nearby Altona.

The Thalia Theater survived the 1943 Hamburg firestorm, but fell victim to bombs in 1945, just as the war drew to a conclusion. The theater was rebuilt in the late 1950’s and reopened in 1960.

Unbeknownst to the German authorities, the basement of the Thalia Theater served as headquarters for local resistance forces against Hitler.

The Thalia Theater is a grand old traditional theater, with excellent sightlines and sumptuous decoration. The main auditorium has 1000 seats.

We attended a performance at the Thalia Theater of “Die Katze Auf Dem Heissen Blechdach”, known in the English-speaking world as Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”. We all enjoyed the performance very much, although I doubt that we would have wanted to see a play that was not already familiar to us.

There are several commercial theaters in Hamburg that offer long runs of popular musicals. Some of these commercial runs have lasted literally for years: when we were in Hamburg, “The Lion King”, “Mamma Mia” and some German musical I had never even heard of were in the middle of multi-year runs.

Hamburg has two English-language theaters, too, owing to the large contingent of British citizens who live and work in Hamburg. There are 100,000 British residents of Hamburg, a reflection of the longstanding mercantile ties between Hamburg and London going back five centuries.

One of the English-language theaters, the aptly-named English Theatre, is fully professional and offers performances year-round. We attended a performance at the English Theatre of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”. The performance was not very good.

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