A day in dystopia

In anticipation of the Olympics, that celebration of superhuman achievement, London’s performing arts season has been marked by marathon events: 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages; 10 different Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch stagings; Philip Glass’s sprawling Einstein on the Beach; cover-to-cover readings of The Great Gatsby. But for endurance connoisseurs, the place to be is Berlin. There they can immerse themselves in Hebbel am Ufer theatre’s 24-hour Infinite Jest, a promenade reimagining of David Foster Wallace’s cult 1996 American novel.

For those who have read its 1,000 pages of dense, meandering narrative and 388 lengthy footnotes, such an undertaking will seem almost unimaginably ambitious. Yet the novel – part Bildungsroman, part tongue-in-cheek conspiracy thriller, part meditation on depression and addiction – has attracted would-be adapters before: Ken Campbell, the late British theatrical wizard, worked for years to realise a seven-day version for the millennium, which would have had 999 performers. Compared with that, HAU’s production, performed by Anglo-German company Gob Squad and others, is positively modest.

Matthias Lilienthal, HAU’s artistic director, and his creative team use various offbeat structures in Berlin to represent Wallace’s dystopian near-future North America, with its various worlds of media and sport, its addicts and assassins, and its seekers for the ultimate entertainment, Infinite Jest, a film of such total pleasure that you watch it until you die.

The opening scenes take place in west Berlin’s LTTC tennis complex to bring to life Boston’s elite Enfield Tennis Academy, home of troubled prodigy Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s protagonists. On the main court, we see four identical selves using words to vie for game, set and match, an image of a fractured personality at war with itself; it’s immediately clear that the next 24 hours will be total immersive theatre, geared to match Wallace’s long descriptive passages and verbal volleys – he was a master of the linguistic lob shot.

As the morning passes into the afternoon and inexorably into the next dawn, a caravan of buses ferries the audience from one venue to the next: a 1930s recording studio at state broadcaster RBB for a radio broadcast by the novel’s veiled Madame Psychosis; a 1970s laboratory at Berlin Technical University; assorted hospital wards and corridors, where we follow the progress of recovering addict Don Gately; the American Western Saloon, a “real” cowboy cabaret restaurant. The most dramatic site, the decayed remains of Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic domes atop the Teufelsberg, an artificial hill made of wartime rubble, is the setting for a political dialogue – in English, though most of the production is in German – between a cross-dressing secret agent and a wheelchair-bound assassin.

Another (literal) high point is the penultimate scene, atop the Reinickendorf tax office, where the audience puts on masks and sits in wheelchairs to become members of a bizarre Québecois terrorist cell. Here the novel’s growing alienation takes on mounting sobriety and gloom until the first glints of light appear against the slate of the Berlin morning sky. For all Wallace’s arch postmodernism, the touches of high German Romanticism are unmistakable.

But Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, gets his due. At about midnight the audience arrives at the (invented) David Foster Wallace Centre, located in a concrete brutalist building on the campus of Berlin’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Microbiology and Hygiene. Banners announce a conference devoted to Wallace’s life and works; functionaries usher us in to a lecture hall, where a lecture by a German academic is Skyped through, with questions and answers afterwards. Books and T-shirts are on sale; there’s even a conference tote bag to take away.

This Infinite Jest is a journey not just into a formidable modern classic but also into a contemporary theatre world that blends real-world settings and fictional narratives with an ever-changing cast of young international performers – from Germany, the UK, Poland, Argentina, the US, France – who embrace the new techniques of “anti-theatre”: they are the characters, they are themselves and they are something more – guides to the recesses of Wallace’s darkly absurdist imagination. HAU’s staging may be a marathon, but it is as exhilarating as it is exhausting.

The final performance of ‘Infinite Jest’ starts on June 27; www.hebbel-am-ufer.de

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.