Berliner Ensemble was founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel in 1949, following the greatly acclaimed production of Brecht’s Mother Courage. After Brecht’s return from exile, the company first worked at Wolfgang Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater. Eventually, in 1954, it was given its own home at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, a theatre with a lavish neo-Baroque interior which had survived the war without much damage. In 1928 the debut performance of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s The Three Penny Opera took place at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, directed by Ernst Josef Aufricht. It was one of the most successful theatre performances in Berlin in the 20th century.

In this theatre Brecht directed his plays The Caucasian Chalk Circle and, together with Erich Engel, The Life of Galileo. His students Benno Besson, Egon Monk, Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth were given the opportunity to direct plays by Brecht, which had not yet been staged. The stage designers Caspar Neher and Karl von Appen, the composers Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler, and the dramaturge Elisabeth Hauptmann were among Brecht’s closest collaborators. After Brecht’s death in 1956, Helene Weigel continued as the company’s artistic manager. Young directors including Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff started their careers with the Berliner Ensemble. The company made its mark with such productions as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Ekkehard Schall as “Ui”, and with Helene Weigel’s memorable performances in Coriolan and The Mother.

When Ruth Berghaus became artistic director in 1971, there was a chance for political and artistic renewal. She directed Cement by Heiner Müller, much of whose work was banned from the theatre in the German Democratic Republic. Young directors including B.K. Tragelehn and Einar Schleef and the stage designer Andreas Reinhardt questioned the traditions of Brechtian theatre. The political establishment did not accept the challenge of Berghaus’s more experimental ways, and Manfred Wekwerth replaced her as artistic director in 1977. Nevertheless, new drama did find its way onto the stage. Writers including Volker Braun and Georg Seidel, and Horst Sagert’s production of scenes from Urfaust, brought new life to a repertory otherwise handicapped by restrictive official policies.

In 1992, under the new artistic management of Matthias Langhoff, Fritz Marquardt, Heiner Müller, Peter Palitzsch, and Peter Zadek, the Berliner Ensemble changed from state-owned theatre into a private limited company subsidised by the city government. Heiner Müller’s production of Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with Martin Wuttke playing the title role, became one of the most successful ones in the history of the Berliner Ensemble – it is still in the repertory with over 400 performances.

In September 1999 Claus Peymann became artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble putting the focus of attention on contemporary theatre and first performances of plays as well as directing classics with a modern point of view. On January 8, 2000 the Berliner Ensemble was reopened with the first performance of George Tabori’s Brecht-Akte. In 2001 the performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, directed by Claus Peymann, was invited to the 38. Berliner Theatertreffen, Fadjr International Theatre Festival (Tehran/Iran) in 2005, and was awarded the Friedrich-Luft-Preis. Since the 2002/2003 season, Claus Peymann has put special focus on plays of Bertolt Brecht: The Mother, Saint Joan of the Stockyards and Mother Courage and Her Children in 2005 (since then guest performances in Lyon [France] Tehran[Iran] and Porto Alegre [Brazil]). His latest production is the popular play Spring Awakening, A Children’s Tragedy by Frank Wedekind, staged in December 2008, Carlo Goldoni’s The Holiday Trilogy (December 2009), Mark Ravenhill’s contemporary play Freedom and Democracy I Hate You (2010), Simply Complicated by Thomas Bernhard (2011), Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner (2012), Intrigue and Love, (March 2013) and Kafka’s Trial in (2014). The opening of his latest production was in March 2015 with The Power of Habit by Thomas Bernhard.

Directors who have been working at the Berliner Ensemble are, amongst others, Thomas Langhoff, Robert Wilson, Leander Haußmann, Peter Stein, Peter Zadek, Luc Bondy, Katharina Thalbach, Günter Krämer, Philip Tiedemann and Manfred Karge, and in 2009 Andrea Breth. At the heart of the Berliner Ensemble’s work today is contemporary theatre including German-speaking debut performances like Elfriede Jelinek’s Wolken.Heim. Und dann nach Hause in 2005 or Peter Handke’s Untertagblues in 2004 and Spuren der Verirrten in 2007, and in 2009 a new play by Albert Ostermaier, Blue Mirrors, directed by Andrea Breth (May 2009). In honour of the 50th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht’s death, the Berliner Ensemble initiated a huge Brecht Festival in August 2006, showing the timeliness and prominence of Brecht’s work. The festival was a compelling success with the public. In summer 2007 an internationally highly renowned theatre event was initiated by the Berliner Ensemble: Director Peter Stein put all three parts of Schiller’s Wallenstein on stage – performed in one single day in the special location of the old brewery “Kindl-Halle” in Berlin-Neukölln with Klaus Maria Brandauer as Wallenstein. In 2008 Peter Stein and Klaus Maria Brandauer continued their successful collaboration at the Berliner Ensemble with The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonos in 2010. Between May and July 2012 Berliner Ensemble celebrated an extraordinary success with the I. Vienna Festival, 62 performances including numerous openings.

Director Robert Wilson has subsequently worked at Berliner Ensemble: In 2003 he directed Georg Büchner’s Leonce und Lena with the music of Herbert Grönemeyer followed by William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in 2005. In 2007 Wilson’s The Threepenny Opera was performed on the same stage where, in 1928, the debut performance of Brecht’s early work took place. The play was a great success with the public all over the world; guest performances were held in Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Sao Paulo and Perth. In April 2009, he directed the Berliner Ensemble actors for the third time with Shakespeare’s Sonnets on which he worked together with the musician Rufus Wainwright. This world premiere was followed by another one in April 2011, when he worked with Lou Reed on Frank Wedekinds Lulu and Peter Pan with music by CocoRosie (2013). His current production is Goethe/Wilson/Grönemeyer FAUST I und II with music by Herbert Grönemeyer, opening in April 2015.

© Marcus Lieberenz