Matthias lilienthal takes stock of munich: at the moment of greatest love

Matthias Lilienthal and the people of Munich did not have it easy together. A look back at five years as director of the Munich Kammerspiele.

Scene from "Wunde R" with Redetzki, Windischbauer, Lobau, Bozbay (from left to right) Photo: Philip Frowein

The old Munich South Cemetery was built in 1563 for the victims of the plague. Today, wildly proliferating plants show that the living always triumphs over the dead, and time over everything. This is a good place to talk about five years of Munchner Kammerspiele during the corona pandemic – and one that Matthias Lilienthal would like. He spent a lot of time here with his young daughter during the shutdown. "When the playgrounds were closed, there was a child playing on every grave," says the outgoing artistic director.

In the face of testimonies to eternity like this, five years become a snap of the fingers and the question of legacy is put into perspective, about which Lilienthal has repeatedly said recently that he doesn’t give a damn in view of the real threat to thousands of lives and the continued existence of the open society. Just as indifferent as the botched farewell, which, he says, "fits a very strange Intendanz."

Because of Corona, the last Kammerspiel premieres were cancelled. Two of them have now been made up. Just on the day the theaters opened in Bavaria, the world premiere of Enis Maci’s "Wunde R" and the installation "Oracle" came on stage.

Neither of them was conceived for the (post-)pandemic society, but they can be read very well from it, because they address – in highly artificial formal language – the fragility of the human condition. In Felix Rothenhausler’s production of "Wunde R", four rigid figures sit around a glass table separated from 20 spectators by a chalk circle.

Overkills of psychedelic colors and shapes

They speak in distorted voices of tragically ending female role models, the compulsion for physical self-optimization, make-up tutorials, and the absence of a sense of we, while perfectly formed, jellyfish-colored cupcakes melt in front of them and slap at their feet as ice floes toward the end. In "Wound R", the aforementioned end comes after an hour, in conformity with corona rules.

The walk to Susanne Kennedy’s oracle is only 35 minutes short. The loneliness – originally a group of four would have been let in every six minutes, now you are alone – intensifies the creepiness of the encounter with the transhuman figures who, in Markus Selg’s nested spatial installation, escort you with friendly smiles but brittle voices and repeatedly intermittent breathing to an AI oracle to whom you can ask three questions.

Selg’s rooms are an overkill of psychedelic shapes and colors. Walking through them feels like a mixture of ghost train, 3-D computer game, LSD trip and illustrious initiation ritual.

No substitute party in the Olympic stadium

This stimulus and effect mash-up is just as familiar from Kennedy as her flirtation with New Age philosophies, which has intensified over the years. Whereas in this case the call for introspection – the oracular "Know thyself!" – and the exuberant sensual intoxication take each other by the scruff of the neck. Nevertheless, those who have grown accustomed to live theater feel rather dejected afterwards – and impressed by the effort that has been put into four days of performances and a handful of visitors. Playing longer is not possible because of short-time work, the beginning of rehearsals for Lilienthal’s successor Barbara Mundel and the preparations for the farewell party on July 11.

Lilienthal’s heart project, a 24-hour ride through the entire city with stops based on Roberto Bolano’s novel "2666," has "failed due to a mixture of attrition, time and money reasons," as he says somewhat gruffly. And the replacement bash at the Olympic Stadium, he waves off, isn’t one at all. "It’s going to be quite small and is more of an attempt to show some images of the isolation of individuals at that time."

The whole thing will last half an hour and hopefully make more than the hundred people happy who have been admitted to Bavarian theaters to date. The deserted Olympic Stadium is big enough for this – and, says the director, "a favorite place of the people of Munich and of me.

That’s nice, because Lilienthal and the people of Munich didn’t always have it easy with each other. There was the arrogant appearance of the crew around him, his then chief dramaturge Benjamin von Blomberg and house director Nicolas Stemann as saviors for the hillbillies, and the merging of the independent scene and the city theater was sometimes pushed wet-behind-the-ears. In a special edition of the magazine "Das Wetter" on the occasion of Lilienthal’s farewell to the Kammerspiel, Josef Bierbichler wrote: "He fell to the ground like a star from another star and was treated accordingly."

"50 Degrees of Shame"

The word of the "Jammerspielen" circulated in the press, the old actors’ theater was pitted against the supposedly new but disparaged as amateurish performance theater, and false oppositions were built up. And yes, perhaps he too had underestimated some of the challenges at first – such as what it means to have seven people directing a municipal theater at the same time.

But statements like that of an SZ critic that She She Pop’s production of "50 Grades of Shame" would probably have pleased him if he had seen it in a free-scene venue could only reinforce Lilienthal. For they think along the honorability of the institution Kammerspiele, whose "de-auratization" was his mission.

This de-auratization has deterred some and attracted a new audience. Pop concerts and political discussions in the big house, Arabic-speaking performers, young, international directors – establishing that takes time. Lilienthal and the CSU faction in the city council didn’t give it to each other. In 2018, he announced his departure for 2020, after which came success.

He himself speaks of three "tipping points" that initiated the success. The first was the CSU’s attempt to deny the Kammerspiele the right to demonstrate against the right, which was followed by a wave of solidarity. The second was the successful start of the fourth season, especially with Christopher Ruping’s eleven-hour antiquities project "Dionysos Stadt," which restored many people’s faith in the community-building power of theater, and, as a third point, in the critics’ poll by Theater heute magazine for the Theater of the Year award, which caused a veritable chart storm.

Lilienthal soon back in Berlin

Lilienthal knows this honor from his time at the Berlin Volksbuhne and the HAU. But "the significance was much greater in Munich. Since that third switchover experience, the city’s relationship with us has changed completely. And now the experiment breaks off at the moment of great love."

Perhaps love is too big, too plush a word for the relationship between the people of Munich and the man from Berlin. But 85 percent space utilization isn’t bad. And a season opener featuring works by Toshiki Okada, Anta Helena Recke, Florentina Holzinger and Leonie Boehm’s wild "Robbers" returning to the schedule in July offered fun and productive friction. In the diverse ensemble, many young actors such as Julia Riedler, Damian Rebgetz and Thomas Hauser grew very close to one’s heart.

And still? "It worked out totally well," says Lilienthal himself, "to set up a German-language municipal theater as a sham, because at rehearsals English was spoken easily fifty percent of the time. And that we showed that a city theater can be run as a hybrid." Even if the hybrid form – that is, the fact that the Kammerspiele simultaneously sees itself as an international festival and production house for the international independent scene – is still not uncontroversial in the city.

Lilienthal is going back to Berlin at the end of July. The festival he was supposed to curate in Beirut has long been off the table, because there are more existential problems than theater in Lebanon right now. Now the future of the sixty-year-old is open again, but a letter of application is already on the way: "A city that gives me 10 million euros a year and a large hall where you can think freely about projects between visual arts, cinema, theater and performance art is welcome to contact me."

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