Before the curtain rose at the Berlin Volksbühne for Friday’s premiere of “Sardanapal,” inspired by Lord Bryon’s 1821 play “Sardanapalus,” the audience learned that one of the show’s lead actors, Benny Claessens, was “not doing well.” In heroic, Byronic fashion, the show’s director and lead Fabian Hinrichs rescued the evening by jumping into the fray and assuming his absent co-star’s role, along with his own.
And so the show — a labor of love that verges on folly — went on. Hinrichs’s ambition, it seems, is to revive the English Romantic poet’s verse drama about Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king who lived in the 7th century B.C. and whose credo, in Byron’s memorable formulation, was “eat, drink, and love; the rest’s not worth a fillip.” Instead of pursuing violent conquest and martial glory, the powerful monarch of the title revels in the good life and inspires his subjects to do likewise.
In a 2019 article about the play by Hinrichs that was republished on the production’s website, he writes that Byron’s forgotten drama “deserves a splendid rebirth.” A splendid rebirth is decidedly not what the Berlin audience got on Friday night.
Hinrichs, a wry and charismatic performer who is also credited with the production’s music and the sets (along with Ann-Christine Müller), is a cult figure at the Volksbühne, known for his collaborations with René Pollesch, the German writer-director who is the theater’s artistic director. One of their productions together was a splashy extravaganza at Berlin’s biggest revue theater, in 2020.
But this is Hinrichs’s first time directing a show at the Volksbühne; over the course of its intermission-less two hours, the production feels dramaturgically rudderless.
Far from a faithful staging of Byron’s five-act tragedy, Hinrichs’s staging is essentially a revue. It recalls several of the Volksbühne’s other recent outings, including Florentina Holzinger’s “Ophelia’s Got Talent” and Constanza Macras’s “Drama,” which also combine dialogue, music and dance in messy, hard-to-classify evenings. The most sustained engagement we get with Byron’s work and themes is a corny YouTube tribute video of inspirational quotes that is projected onstage during the show.
The evening gets off to a slow start, with a series of disconnected musical numbers, both live (a gusto-filled saxophone solo) and canned (Barry White’s “Let the Music Play”). Hinrichs dances ecstatically to the disco classic before singing a song by Schubert.
Before we get to ancient Mesopotamia, however, we find ourselves in a Munich supermarket at 5 a.m., listening to Hinrichs making small talk with the cashier (and holding up the checkout line). What does she think about while scanning items for eight hours a day, he wants to know. The actress Lilith Stangenberg launches into a lusty monologue about her love for the sea and sand. Stangenberg, an striking and eccentric comédienne, returns later in the evening as Myrrha, an enslaved Greek woman who is Sardanapalus’s lover.
After waiting on the supermarket checkout line for an hour, we finally get to Assyria and to Byron’s drama. On opening night, Hinrichs, filling in for his absent star, clutched the script in his hand as he declaimed the epicurean monarch’s lofty verse. (Claessens’ name has been taken off the “Sardanapal” program for subsequent performances, and local news media have speculated about a rift between the actor and director; a Volksbühne spokeswoman said Claessens is unwell.)
Under these trying circumstances, Hinrichs’s delivery was both muscular and somehow deflated. His signature laconic tone was unmistakable: wide-eyed yet world-weary, and shot through with grace and absurd humor. Yet in the context of a disjointed and meandering production, even Hinrichs’s performance grew exasperating.
Still, there were some moments of reprieve. It was wonderful to find the Volksbühne’s longtime music director Sir Henry back on the main stage and at his piano. He accompanies Hinrichs as the actor warbles his way through the Schubert, performs as the soloist in the first movement of a Chopin piano concerto and even operates a floor polisher onstage in the supermarket scene. A late-evening fairy ballet for dancers in billowy white costumes was a high point, as was the lovely, all-too-brief scene in which the acrobat Christine Wunderlich recited a monologue during an aerobic silk performance. And a youth orchestra from a local high school accompanied Sir Henry in the Chopin: it returned later in the evening to perform some Philip Glass, and the evening wrapped up with (why not?) Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
In more ways than one, “Sardanapal” felt like a missed opportunity for the Volksbühne, which is slowly regaining its footing after a few extremely rocky years. February’s premiere of “Die Monosau” was an invigorating jolt of theatrical madness that felt like a vindication of the theater’s new model of collective leadership. I hope that “Sardanapal” isn’t too much of a setback for an institution that finally seemed to be on its way to recovery.
Through May 30 at the Volksbühne theater, in Berlin; www.volksbuehne.berlin.