Espiner's Berlin : The many stages of David Bowie

After a pause directing theatre in London, but missing the massive Bowie exhibtion there, our columnist Mark Espiner is back to catch it in Berlin - and is impressed by the staging.

David Bowie während der Filmarbeiten zum Musikvideo "Ashes to Ashes", 1980. Fotografie von Brian Duffy.
David Bowie während der Filmarbeiten zum Musikvideo "Ashes to Ashes", 1980. Fotografie von Brian Duffy.Foto: Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

March 2013. And like the Ziggy phenomenon 40 years before, Bowie was once again THE hot ticket in London. This time, though, it wasn't the Hammersmith Odeon stage. It was the venerable V&A. Bowie in a museum? It sounded wrong.

I've been taken away from Berlin far too much recently, which might explain my silence to some of you, working as a theatre director doing things like this. But here, I thought, was a small bonus for my exile: in London in time for the Bowie opening.

But then came Bowiemania

I had another reason beyond Bowie for wanting to attend. Maybe it was just me (Kursk, one of the shows I co-directed, had been featured in a recent exhibition at the V&A) but I sensed a shift at the museum towards the more theatrical. This show was certainly a headline-grabbing bit of programming. Could that be the influence of the Germans, I thought, with Stuttgart-born Martin Roth as the new head of this most English of institutions?

But then came Bowiemania. Everyone wanted a ticket. There were bids on ebay. Long queues. Timed entry. I missed it.

David Bowie in Berlin
David Bowie (8. Januar 1947 - 10. Januar 2016). Hier ein Bild von 1976 in Berlin. Foto von Archival Pigment Print auf Baryt. Courtesy: EYE·D Agentur für Fotografie. Das Bild war Teil der großen Bowie Ausstellung im Martin-Gropius-Bau.Weitere Bilder anzeigen
1 von 28Foto: Jim Rakete
11.01.2016 08:23David Bowie (8. Januar 1947 - 10. Januar 2016). Hier ein Bild von 1976 in Berlin. Foto von Archival Pigment Print auf Baryt....

So, I was thrilled to discover it was coming to Berlin. Let's not tread over that Bowie Berlin myth stuff again, it's all been written about (even by me) a little too much recently. Unless you've been floating in a most a peculiar way up in space, you must by now know the story of the rise and fall of the starman, strung out in heaven's high on cocaine in LA and falling to Earth to hit an all-time low in Berlin, where he created the aptly named Low, Heroes and Lodger records - and helped make Iggy pop.

Putting on headphones take you to another world

While there's a whole room given to his "Berlin years", plus an extra Berlin-only section with new exhibits about him in the city, it was less revealing to me on his exile than it was another aspect of his work: theatre. This was surely aided by the innovative staging of the "show", which behaved more like a piece of contemporary immersive theatre than a museum exhibition.

I'm no fan of audioguides at all. I like to just look at the work in front of me and have my own thoughts. But putting on headphones for this takes you into another world, an intimate Bowie world, where it feels like David is almost talking to you. Sennheiser, a sponsor and supporter of the show, have developed some special technology for the event. Sound samples and music, which operate almost like a score for the show, are triggered when you stand in a particular location or in front of an artifact. They then seamlessly fade and dissolve into each other as you move around the exhibits.

Thin White Duke: David Bowie
David Bowie 1976. Der britische Sänger lebte von 1976 bis 1978 in einer großen Altbauwohnung in Schöneberg.Alle Bilder anzeigen
1 von 8Foto: AFP
19.05.2014 12:08David Bowie 1976. Der britische Sänger lebte von 1976 bis 1978 in einer großen Altbauwohnung in Schöneberg.

The theatrical design group, 59 productions, who are responsible for the staging, and who had a hand in the celebrated Olympic 2012 Opening Ceremony in London, have used this to thrilling effect, coupling sound with visuals and settings that are sometimes subtly and sometimes brashly immersive. On the subtle end of the spectrum, you have a life-size video image of Bowie singing Starman on Top of The Pops, and you experience what a generation of artists including choreographer Michael Clark and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant felt when Bowie looks dead straight into the camera and sings, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you", and then drapes himself around the shoulders of guitarist Mick Ronson; provocatively erotic. Subtle, but intimate and completely implicatory, it is all enhanced by the set design.

Similarly implicatory but on a much grander scale is the centrepiece 3D audio room, where you are surrounded by 6.5m-high video screens, flashing camera bulbs and an almost overwhelming concert soundtrack. You are immersed in the crowd of a Bowie gig as well having the sensation of being thrust on to the stage with him at Glastonbury.

The group of behind-the-scenes artists who have created this staging and sound, incidentally, provide another link with Berlin. The excellent sound design from Gareth Fry and 59 Productions' creative directors have had a hand in Katie Mitchell's ground-breaking work at the Schaubühne, as well as being on the team who created War Horse, currently on the Berlin stage.

Mark Espiner
Mark EspinerFoto: Thilo Rückeis

This theatricalised experience threw an emphasis on his theatre work, which lay just below the surface in the exhibition. As I took in with my eyes and ears what was happening all around me, I realised Bowie's theatrical vision has been rather overshadowed by his music. I'm not talking about his efforts as a stage or film performer, where he is not so much a cracked actor but a bad one (the video of him in the Elephant Man is proof enough of that), but more about how he has embraced theatre: training as a mime artist with Lindsay Kemp, paying homage to Brecht and Weill by recording their songs and performing Baal, presenting jaw-dropping staging and costumes with German performance artist and musician Klaus Nomi in New York. It's interesting, too, to note how much of his theatrical inspiration comes from 1920s Germany.

All of which has rather put me in the mood for the Bowie-associated theatrical event connected to the exhibition and taking place at the Haus Der Berliner Festspiele on June 15. And at the risk of becoming Tagesspiegel's Bowie Correspondent, I'll be along to see what that's like too. I'll let you know how I get on.

Mark Espiner

You can email Mark on and follow him on twitter @deutschmarkuk