The French Revolution as a Funfair Spectacle on the Bosporus

Roberto Ciulli's staging of "Danton's Death" with Turkish actors recently premiered in Istanbul – and may provide the prototype for a new form of cultural cooperation between Germany and Turkey. By Dorothea Marcus

Roberto Ciulli's staging of "Danton's Death" with Turkish actors recently premiered in the Turkish cultural metropolis of Istanbul – and may provide the prototype for a new form of cultural cooperation between Germany and Turkey. By Dorothea Marcus

photo: Theater an der Ruhr
Guillotines, rolling heads and Jacobin apes – the French revolution as a funfair spectacle

​​Around 2.5 million Turks live in Germany, but few of them go to the theater. Why seek out new horizons when there is a need for action right here, Roberto Ciulli may have thought when he started his latest project. At first glance it looks less spectacular than his previous politico-cultural Silk Road expeditions to Baghdad and Teheran: an intensive collaboration with the Istanbul Municipal Theater.

It kicks off a far-reaching Turkish-German theater collaboration which will later be joined by the Thalia Theater Hamburg and the Berliner Ensemble.

The project, strategically grounded in Germany's Turkish centers, is nothing less than an attempt to completely rethink cultural integration by creating a common cultural groundwork.

French Revolution and Turkish HipHop

The stage presents a peculiar scene: the protagonists of the French Revolution sit in a funfair caravan like remote-controlled automata, mechanically rapping the first scene as Turkish hip-hop.

Revolutions aren't fun anymore, just exhausting. Robespierre and Danton, in monkey masks, have become indistinguishable from each other: the wheel of history and the implacable guillotine have ground all ideological differences to dust.

The production is set at a theatrical funfair which features simultaneously as an intermediate realm of death: heads roll here like bowling balls. A typical Ciulli metaphor, comforting and disturbing, implying that life is nothing but transient theater and that all are equal in the face of death.

After that the eaten children of the revolution sit on a toppled carousel in prison clothing, rocking like autistics and holding their own chains: in the name of freedom, people voluntarily commit themselves to prisons they have created themselves.

The scene shifts to Istanbul

A year before Ciulli had premiered "Danton's Death" in Mülheim, where the underlying mood was one of battle-weariness and longing for death. In Istanbul there is more life and color. The heavyweight Istanbul Danton is a sensual colossus with a lust for life, incapable of true sorrow.

"Eylül", "September", he keeps crying, tormented by the ghosts of his past: before abandoning the killing machine of the Revolution, he was responsible for the September Massacres.

This abandonment of the logic of killing is what Ciulli wants Büchner's Danton to show. A man who prefers to die at the height of his fame than to go on spinning the spiral of guilt.

It is hard to say how much the Turkish viewers in the sold-out house understand about Danton. Brecht, Schiller and even Tankred Dorst often make the theater programs here, but most have never heard of Büchner.

A piece of Turkish History

And the French Revolution, the bloody core of European identity, is unknown in a country which was rocked by its own military putsches nearly once a decade until 1980.

According to the State Theater Director, Mazlum Kiper: "There has been only one attempt to stage Danton's Death here, and that was in September 1956. Just before the premiere, however, the play was banned due to the word 'September', a political allusion that was too explosive for the time."

Kiper recalls that there had been a military putsch two weeks before the premiere, on September 6 and 7. The month of September has great significance in Turkey; the last military putsch in Turkey, in 1980, took place on the 12th of September:

"I'm very glad that we can finally stage it. I think it will send a very clear signal that the Turks and the Germans are able to work well together, despite all their difficulties, and that Turkey is part of Europe."

Addressing new issues

Mazlum Kiper, 59, spent 24 years doing theater in Stockholm. For four months now he has been the director of the Municipal Theater in Istanbul, trying to bring a contemporary, international program to the otherwise quite traditional Turkish stage.

He is planning productions on the Bosnia war and the fate of Albanian women; next year, there will even be one on the explosive issue of honor killings.

The German-Turkish production will tour Germany as well, and Kiper expects it to help Turks living in Germany connect more strongly with the Turkish theater – and bring both countries closer together on a cultural level.

However, it is unclear how long the new artistic director will be able to continue modernizing the Istanbul Theater: in Turkey, artistic directors work without a contract and can be fired by the government at any time.

By contrast, the approximately 200 actors who play the seven stages of the Municipal Theater daily, often several times a day, are hired virtually for life – and for a monthly salary of 900 euro, a pittance in expensive Istanbul.

Engin Alkan, who plays Danton, is all too familiar with the difficult working conditions experienced by Turkish actors: "Sometimes we feel like acting machines, as if someone just had to push our button", says Alkan. "To get by, we have to work as teachers or dubbing actors. It has gotten much more difficult over the past ten years."

Acting on the highest level

Whatever criticisms could be made about the backwardness of their theater, the Turks' acting is on a level that could compete with any European actors.

It is breathtaking to see the twelve actors' openness and delight in improvisation, their confidence and their intimacy with the audience. Maybe it is due to their incredible acting routine – the Turkish municipal theaters give around 70 performances a month in Istanbul, almost always sold out.

Or maybe it is their enormous enthusiasm for working with a European director. The first German production with Turkish actors has created an undisputed sensation in the metropolis of 17 million people.

Danton posters are prominently displayed everywhere alongside cosmetic ads, and Roberto Ciulli features on talk shows and in extensive newspaper interviews.

Provocative style

In this Islamic country Ciulli has staged Büchner's sexually-charged language with relish, developing vivid images for the relationship between Danton's love- and death-drives and for the paradoxical situation of an Istanbul poised between tradition and modernity: the slave-drivers of Robespierre's fanaticism are dressed like the transvestites who can be seen on every street corner in cosmopolitan Istanbul.
Despite the unusual (and, for many, provocative) stylistic devices, the Turkish theatergoers react with enthusiasm, even if some complain that they know virtually nothing about the French Revolution and have completely different concerns in Turkey.

Still, they seem to sense that Ciulli's production in Istanbul could usher in a new form of cultural cooperation with Turkey.

And that fits perfectly with Ciulli's utopias: creating hybrid cosmopolitan identities independent of national borders and allowing cultures to enrich one another. Maybe this will draw a completely new audience for Germany's crisis-rocked theaters.

Dorothea Marcus


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