Theater unchained in Marx-themed play

'Karl Marx: Capital, Volume I,' playing this month as part of Festival/Tokyo, presents an unusual interpretation of 'Das Kapital'


The grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, North London, is marked by a bronze bust of the German political philosopher and economist atop a massive granite block on which is inscribed: “Workers of all lands unite.”

Here in Tokyo, as global capitalism reels, theatergoers are about to be treated to an award-winning German dramatization of Marx’s epic 1867-94 tome “Das Kapital” (“Capital”), whose seed was sown by the seminal 1849 pamphlet he wrote with Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto.”

Delivering this timely staging is the cutting-edge Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll company, beloved of audiences at last year’s Tokyo International Festival (TIF) for its searing exploration of the lives of model-train obsessives in “Mnemopark.” This time, as TIF morphs into Festival/Tokyo, the troupe is back with its 2007 masterpiece, “Karl Marx: Capital, Volume I.”

Well ahead of curtain-up on Feb. 26 at Nishi Sugamo Arts Factory in Tokyo, 39-year-old Daniel Wetzel — one of this program’s two creators, along with Helgard Haug — and the company’s dramaturg, Sebastian Brunger, came over on an artistic reconnaissance in January. The Japan Times took the opportunity to ask these leading contemporary dramatists their views of theater in such changing times, as well about the content of the play they distilled from the massive work that so inspired Lenin and continues to shape our history.

Running diametrically counter to the egalitarian spirit of this piece, in Japan it’s quite the norm for producers to try to maximize their profit not by aiming for the artistic excellence that keeps some plays running for years in Western capitals, but by simply casting hot, trendy actors or celebrities and heightening the novelty appeal (and reducing the commercial risk) by restricting stagings to just a few weeks.

But as with “Mnemopark,” Rimini Protokoll — formed in 2000 by Haug, Wetzel and Stefan Kaegi, classmates from the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies — are about to buck the Tokyo norm again by not only forsaking celebrity casting, but by giving the key roles to people who have never before been on a stage.

The company’s brave approach to the theater actors’ role has brought it attention worldwide, with performances throughout Europe (in German, but subtitled in the local language) and in New York as well as Tokyo invariably being virtual sellouts. Rimini Protokoll’s intriguing and challenging practice of casting nonactors, along with themselves, draws out amateurs to reveal their inner selves as well as, often, recounting memories and clearly expressing their views.

Rimini Protokoll’s programs usually start with company members deciding the theme of the project, then adding “experts” (as they dub the amateurs) to the staging and working out the script through direct interactions with them.

For example, “Mnemopark,” created by Kaegi, relied on its cast of four retired Swiss model-railway fans who were alone on the stage playing with a big and beautiful model railway while talking about their own life experiences, their country and its history. The play was not only an audience hit at last year’s final TIF, but has been discussed among dramatists and critics ever since.

This simple but radical vision of theater first came to Wetzel about 15 years ago, after he’d finished a theater course and was living in Frankfurt, seeing lots of foreign artists’ performances — including, he recalls with delight, the leading Japanese contemporary dancer Saburo Teshigawara — and cutting-edge arts exhibitions. He was also accumulating an international theater network as he mingled with different types of artists. Consequently, Wetzel says he came to realize that theater could be much more interesting if dramatists “opened their back door and invited nontheater people openly to enter the theater field.”

Looking back to that time, he says now, “Theater in the 1980s and ’90s became more and more closed, so that it was just an internalized world apart. Sometimes the audiences didn’t understand at all what was happening on the stage, but they were quietly frozen in their seats in shock or embarrassment because often such pretentious theater requires them to read five philosophical essays in advance to understand what’s going on.

“I wanted to find a quite different way forward. I wanted to make theater that, for example, complete beginners could participate in and enjoy.”

As a first step, Rimini Protokoll’s founders set a policy of first selecting a theme for each new production. Wetzel emphasizes that these notions never came “from a bookshelf — but from anywhere but existing play texts.”

“For instance,” he continues, “when Helgard became a mother a few years ago, we just went past a kindergarten and we were watching children playing for a while. That put the question in my mind of how such little children learn about the idea of having possessions, and then sharing them with the others.

“That was the starting point for ‘Karl Marx,’ as I thought that if we do a project about socialism or ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ a kindergarten would be a great research field for that, as there is a very basic conflict there.”

He adds that the other trigger for this project came about two years ago when Marx was elected as one of the top three Germans of all time in a poll by a national TV program.

“During that open voting period, many people wrote e-mails to the program about all kinds of opinions and hundreds of different kinds of arguments about Marx,” he recalls. “And so I realized that the ‘Manifesto’ was a great work, even though I’d never read it then.

“Of course, it had always been clear that capitalism does not really work out perfectly, but the point was that there was a book trying to describe the mechanisms of capitalism even before socialism started. . . . For our play we asked some experts on Marx, and found out that ‘Volume I’ is really the key to it all.”

When the company created its play it invited along some experts — including a professor of economic statistics, an investment consultant and a former member of the Communist Confederation in West Germany — and asked them why they’d read “Das Kapital,” what they’d drawn from it and how they thought it pertained to life in the 21st century. But rather than just using these people for research, they put them on stage to express their opinions in their own words.

This radical approach, Wetzel believes, is an effective way for theater to tell a story, and also means the words can become a two-way experience between the performers and the audience.

Brunger is the one who selects the “experts/actors” — usually from around 70 candidates for each project — and for “Karl Marx” he met several Japanese authorities on Marxism in a process that he told me made him realize what a difference there was between how the philosopher is regarded in Germany and Japan. In Germany, he said, people understand Marx as an ideologist and philosopher, but in Japan most people think of him as a great economist. He said he was looking forward to seeing how the play will be received against the very different cultural background here.

Asked why he persisted in working with nonprofessional actors despite the obvious dramatic (and possible financial) risks, Wetzel answers, smiling, “J.D. Salinger once said that he worked with the characters and they have their own lives, and he listens to them and writes notes. Well, our work is really a bit like that. The experts have their own lives and minds and they often come out with stupid ideas, but sometimes they come out with brilliant ones. That’s why we work with them.

“Theater can be a really exploratory thing. So, by working with experts as our actors, and creating a script entirely from what they talk about together, we can open many unexpected windows. There are lots of surprise outcomes.”

Finally, Wetzel reveals — with a sparkle in his eyes — that Rimini Protokoll’s next production will involve mammoth car company Daimler AG’s shareholders’ meeting in April. They will take tickets from shareholders not intending to attend and give them to an “audience” who can then participate among 12,000 capitalists with nothing to lose but their shares’ value.

“The conference could be like an opera production,” says Wetzel. “It’s held in a huge theater and with all the emotion and illusion, it will really be theater, won’t it?”

“Karl Marx: Capital, Volume I” in German with Japanese surtitles runs from Feb. 26 till Mar. 1 at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. For more details, or details of Festival/Tokyo 2009 programs, call (03) 5468-8113 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp