As Tevye the milkman, Max Hopp carried most of the evening. This production made a compelling case for Tevye as a great dramatic, rather than musical, role (“If I Were a Rich Man” is the only vocal firework, after all). Mr. Hopp’s performance peeled back the character’s many layers and identities — Everyman, fool, pious Jew, paterfamilias — without ever reducing him to a single one. The milkman emerged as a far more tragic figure — a Jewish King Lear, as Mr. Kosky suggests in a program note.
It’s easy for the character of Golde, Tevye’s wife, to come across as just another nagging spouse. But Dagmar Manzel combined a no-nonsense attitude with subtle warmth and affection. Together with Mr. Hopp, she made the duet “Do You Love Me?” into an understated emotional highlight — which is not to say there was anything overly somber about this “Fiddler,” as evidenced by Barbara Spitz’s scene-chewing performance as Yente, the busybody matchmaker. Translating her role into Yiddish was one of Mr. Kosky’s most inspired choices.
Encountering Teyve’s milk wagon here in Berlin brings to mind another theatrical icon: the cart dragged by Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” through the Thirty Years’ War. For the past 70 years, the character has also been schlepping it on the stage of the Berliner Ensemble, the theater that Brecht founded in 1949.
This season, the Berliner Ensemble is one of two leading theater companies in the city to welcome a new artistic director. The other one is the Volksbühne, where the appointment of Chris Dercon, the former director of the Tate Modern, as successor to its long-running leader Frank Castorf has been seen by many as a hostile takeover.
Mr. Castorf was invited by Oliver Reese, the Berliner Ensemble’s new artistic director, to direct his first post-Volksbühne production there, and the result is a seven-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” Fans of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s blockbuster musical version are advised to stay far away.
Outside Germany, Mr. Castorf is best known for his controversial 2013 production of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Bayreuth Festival, whose settings included a sleazy motel, Wall Street and the Alexanderplatz square in central Berlin. With its frequently rotating sets, roving cameras and a cast that looked (and behaved) like pimps and streetwalkers, the “Ring” presented by Mr. Castorf was a distillation of his style.
He tends to use a collagelike technique that incorporates outside texts and can alter the original works beyond recognition, but in accordance with Bayreuth tradition, his contract stipulated that he must not change a single word or note by Wagner.
There is no such restriction at the Berliner Ensemble, where Mr. Castorf overlays “Les Misérables” with the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s experimental novel “Three Sad Tigers,” the East German playwright Heiner Müller’s seminal postmodern drama “The Mission,” and “I Am Cuba,” an odd mix of Soviet agitprop and avant-garde filmmaking from 1964. (All of the action has been moved to Havana.) Mr. Castorf has a reputation for lengthy, loud and taxing evenings at the theater, and this production of “Les Misérables” is no exception. Its tagline could be, “Can You Hear the People Scream?”
The characters Jean Valjean and Javert become bit players in this excruciating and wayward production, much of it filmed by a camera crew that follows the actors around, often capturing them in extreme close-up, like a cross between an Ingmar Bergman film and “The Blair Witch Project.” Not surprisingly, it often feels more as if we’re watching a movie, or rather, given the production’s episodic and rambling nature, binge-watching a TV series — one we can’t turn off.
For all the demands that Mr. Castorf makes on his audiences, he makes even more on his actors. The 12 who twirl through these nearly 450 minutes gave it their all, reciting reams of text while cavorting around the intricate, multilevel set. They bare their souls, their bodies and, occasionally, their bodily fluids — basins of stage blood mingle with real snot and tears onstage.
But only one of the players, Jürgen Holtz, manages to connect with the audience, with his gentle, commanding presence and unhurried delivery. As Bishop Myriel, who feeds Valjean, gives him shelter and then lets him keep the silver he has stolen, the 85-year-old theater veteran projects compassion and humanity. We felt especially grateful for it in the midst of this long-lasting misery.