Bökendorf?, they said, when I wrote where I was going this weekend. Where’s that? What’s that? Why?
Well, Bökendorf is a small village, half way to Holland, in Westphalia. It has a population of 800 people, and an open-air theatre which seats 1200. One and a half seats each? The theatre is operated by the local amateur theatre group, which has been staging summer theatre there – rain or shine – for over 60 years, with considerable success. And that’s what I was going to.
But why travel 400km into the Westphalian countryside? There are 80 of these amateur open-air venues in Germany. It’s something of a tradition. And, anyway, why am I going to see amateur theatre, hot on the heels of my nights with the Berlin opera stars and the radiant Radialsystem concert?
Easy. Bökendorf had chosen, for its bi-annual musical of 2012, to present Bonnie and Clyde, the musical with which my favourite musical-theatre maestro and bosom buddy, Paul Graham Brown, made his European debut a decade ago. And which I had never seen.
So, Saturday morning we set off: Uwe at the wheel, Paul, Kurt and Stanley from Vancouver, the picnic bag in the boot ... straight into a murderous traffic jam for an hour. Don’t get me going on German roadworks. Or the scarcity of picnic spots. But we found a nature reserve for a late lunch (at 4pm) and, soon after, we found the town of Brakel, and the picturesquely situated Hotel Waldschänke, where were going to spend the night.
And on the last 7km to the theatre – well, what a theatre! It is set on the edge of a lovely, dense wood, the stage is the side of a hill … but don’t let that fool you! Admittedly there are no flies (yet they have done Peter Pan!), but otherwise, everything is there. Lighting, sound, a revolve .. Hidden away in a bunker, or tunnelled under the earth!
The audience is safe from the weather – for the ‘we play, no matter what the meteo’, rule is never broken – in a splendid covered grandstand. Only the actors get drenched on rainy days. But it stayed fine for us.
Bonnie and Clyde, the musical, is chock full of good things. Interesting things. Tuneful things. It was particularly interesting for me, who know, pretty intimately, Mr B’s later works, to hear this early piece. Afterwards, he said to me (before I could say it to him) ‘it could do with a little slimming!’ But what to slim? Not that music!
The show was a particularly good choice for this company: for although it was originally played with a cast of nine, it expands very effectively for a cast of ninety: the choruses ring out splendidly as sung by whole townful of folk -- fat, thin, short, tall, old, young, real-looking -- instead of just a few, and all the different victims of the gangsters can be played by different actors, instead of having one performer killed several times! There are plenty of supporting roles, too: yes, there is no doubt, this Bonnie and Clyde works splendidly as a ‘big’ musical. And, staged last night on an atmospherically bleak set, it did not deny itself big scenic effects, either. A local gent had loaned a real vintage car for the production, and the final scene of carnage, with the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde was magnificently and effectively staged.
Amateur productions and performances always differ essentially from professional ones, and have to be judged on their own terms. The people up on the stage are there to give pleasure to themselves, not just to you, the audience. And last night they clearly did. Things started a little tentatively and nervously, the pace was way too slow and there were awkward gaps. And there was no conductor to ginger things up, for the backing was necessarily pre-recorded (imagine rain in a flute?): well recorded, but playback, alas, doesn’t allow the music to breathe. Nevertheless, the singers responded to it well, and before long things started to roll along nicely.
The two teenaged artists who played the large and long title roles did very well. They both acted in a natural, easy-spoken manner, with no attitudes or artificiality or ‘acting’, and they sang effectively. A girl of 18 will always have a more developed voice than a boy, but I was glad to hear that both – chorus members heretofore – have found their way to a singing teacher. They have much promise.
The company is particularly rich in good character men, a type of amateur player which used to be so hard to find. Some of them are more actors than singers – after all, this is primarily an acting company -- but no-one let the team down. A little bit of ‘actory acting’ sometimes, which fitted ill with the natural style of, in particular, the ‘hero’, but it was fun. For them … and for me. Well done, chaps!
The principal supporting ladies have a much heavier vocal burden than the men, and here there were absolutely no worries. Both ladies had good, strong, accurate voices.
The folk with a few lines to say or sing were all capable – gone are the days when ‘amateur’ was equated with ‘inefficient’. The Bökendorfers can all ‘do it’.
The audience, who had arrived equipped with cushions, picnics, bottles of wine etc, adored the piece. They applauded repeatedly (and in some right curious places) and bounded to their feet at the curtain calls to give the show an ovation. There were speeches (oh! that dreadful German habit!) and Paul was shyly (?) dragged -- well, he fell actually --on to the stage to take his share of the applause … the end of a splendidly fun evening. The End? Watch this space …
I hope that the players and their director will not stop working on the piece now they’ve opened. It’s good: but it can be very good. Get the running time of Act I down by 10-15 minutes by closing the gaps, and pacing the dialogue and cues. Make the chorus do a warm up, so they come on ready to do a big sing in the opening ... take away Mrs Parker’s wig and handbag, get that wretched park bench off stage quickly or do without it, tie a few peoples arms and hands down .. and … but enough. I’m a perfectionist.
While Paul received his accolades we sat quietly in the bleachers. And then a lady (dressed as a man, they were short of male dancers) came and invited us to a tour ‘backstage’ and …
The tour was fascinating, but the ‘and’!. The company has put up a building in the woods. Wardrobe, dressing rooms and … hospitality. And there we were led, and there we met the company members and officials … and, well, Paul and I were still there at 4am! What a simply delightful ‘family’ of people. The success of the theatre has led to rising standards and interest, and the Bökendorf company has extended its catchment area for players to the towns 20km around. And got 90 for this show, and 90 for their children’s show. Thespis lives in Westphalia!
But the Freilichtbühne (Open-Air Theatre) has become more than a theatre company. It is a major factor in the village, and a veritable ‘family’ for its members. Look down the lists of participants and you will see 4, 5, 6 people of the same surname there. And when the youngsters were up dancing, somewhere round 2 am last night, parents and even grandparents joined in! I would have loved to … but some of the teenagers came and chatted (in perfect English!) to me, in my chair …
A German politician, the other day, called out for cross-generational activities in order to bla-bla-bla. He should visit the Freilichtbühne Bökendorf. There he will meet real people, wonderful people, of all generations …
Oh! I hope they do another PGB musical, and I get to visit them again before I die! I can tell you, I’ll never forget the night … and the lady who kept ladling out the local vodka-ginger-something green …
A special thanks to Michael (actor and scenic designer) who drove a slightly tipsy but very happy author/composer and historian/critic back to Brakel in the small hours …
Gosh, musical theatre can be fun! In Bökendorf anyway!