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Inside ‘Hotel Europa’, a site-specific musical theatre

Photo: A scene from the play. Photo by ALEX WUNSCH

THE moment I saw the title of the play, ‘HOTEL Europa’, two similar titles came to mind immediately. Olu Obafemi’s hilarious play ‘The Midnight Hotel’, and of course, the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ (now on Netflix), which captures one of the most memorable incidents during the Rwanda genocide. There is, however, no relationship between these three different artistic products, or any others for that matter. They are united only by the word ‘hotel’.

The performance, jointly devised by Christian Schonëfelder, a dramaturg and co-artistic director of the Junges Ensemble Stuttgart (JES) and Paulina Mandl of the NIE, was one-off the highlights of the 2022 edition of the Schöne Aussicht Festival. It is an international co-production between the NIE Theatre and Junges Ensemble Stuttgart.  

The hotel owner, Mr. Kurtz has just died and the question of who steps in his shoes arises, all amid his burial rites. The big question is the notion of how to bridge the gap between old values as represented by the late owner, and new values, as must be considered in the choice of his successor.

In the end, against everyone’s expectation and scheming, the new owner was announced, and it is neither Stefan, Mr. Kurtz only son, with no prior experience in business management, nor any of the staff, who had sown their sweats into building the hotel with Mr. Kurtz. Before he died, Kurtz had a meeting with Johnathan, the Spaniard, played by Unai Lopez de Armentia and handed him a recorded tape which he made him promised he’ll play at his funeral. This, Jonathan did, and they were all heartbroken as the hotel was handed over to an investment company for proper management, which of course, they all believed was masterminded by his long-term business partner, Daniel, played by the Briton, David Pagan.

The burial guests (audience), arrived at the Hotel Europa and were received by the family and staff of the hotel, led by Stefan, Kurtz’s only son and ‘inheritor’ of the ‘business’. From there, the actors/staff of hotel led the guests in different groups, through different areas of the hotel, taking them through the history of the facility, from the reception to the rooms, the open foyer, and of course, the kitchen. And finally, we (audience) all arrived at the hotel hall, a banquet scene where the story unfolds, and guests were entertained.

‘Hotel Europa’ is one of the best site-specific productions I have seen. And the fact that it took place in an abandoned, former church hall, according to Philipp Nicolal, the production’s scenographer, and which I agree with, pointed to the old Europe, with its best moment, far behind her. It was such an exciting moment, traversing the various sets of the production.

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Hotel Europa’ attempts to tell the story of Europe, through the eye of 8 characters, from 7 European countries of Germany, Turkey, Spain, Norway, Great Britain, Romania and Kurdistan, who arrived at the hotel where they had worked ever since, representing the ever-growing influx of refugees and immigrants into Europe from Africa, Asia and other underdeveloped nations of the world.

Each character in the play, speaks to the relationship between Europe and their respective nations. Take for instance, the character, Kais, played by Turkish-German actor, Faris Yuzbasioglu. He represents immigrants from East, having migrated to Germany, after stopping over in many other places. He is an interesting character, who though hardworking never achieved anything. He became very popular with the saying “whatever can happen later, can happen today,” but he never gets to achieve anything. However, like many other immigrants from the developing countries, he remains optimistic that someday, sometime, his effort would yield results. 

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Scenes from Hotel Europa. Photos by ALEX WUNSCH

Giving the various themes and sub-themes of the play, one would be tempted to ask: how accommodating has Europe been? Accommodating in terms of her immigration rules amongst other European nations, and especially, towards non-Europeans. The war in Ukraine is a good example. Here you witness the readiness of the European nations to accommodate refugees from Ukraine, but a push-back for other victims of the crisis who are non-Europeans. Hence, immigrants from developing countries had to resort to all sorts of gimmicks, to secure their stay in Europe.

In ‘Hotel Europa’, Arezu, a character beautifully portrayed by Cologne-based Kurdistan freelance actress, Sibel Polat had to secretly get married to Mr. Kurtz, to ensure her stay in Germany, and as a senior staff at the hotel, also hoped to inherit the hotel upon Kurtz death, which is in reference to the search for opportunities, greener pastures in Europe. Her popular mantra, “when there is room for 40, there can be room for 60”, suggests that European nations are rich enough to be able to accommodate immigrants from other parts of the world. In a chat after the show, Polat said “this is a philosophy I believe so much in. And this is the practice of my people. Those who have must cater for those who don’t.”

One strength of this show to me would be its musicality, which made up for the challenges that language posed. The language was a mixture of German, with a little bit of English, making comprehension, in terms of the storyline, challenging. However, music and humour combine to make the show a spectacle. One thing is certain though, Hotel Europa is a huge spectacle with very high entertainment value. It is one such show you’ll have no regret seeing, for its entertainment and not necessary because you are looking for a story line or message.

Another plus would be the interactive nature of the play, which absorbs the audience, or if you like the guests at Kurtz’ burial. From beginning to the end, the audience had one role or the other to play, especially in the final stage where some audience members worked in the kitchen to help get the food ready, and some others in the hall, to help get it ready for the funeral party.

However, this interactive approach suffers a setback given that, at some point, the audience split into three groups, each led by one or two actors towards different part of the hotel. The challenge with this was the fact that no attempt was made to feed the audience in on what transpired during such separate briefing session in the play.

Like Europe itself, ‘Hotel Europa’ is a tourist attraction, with people from different backgrounds and cultures as seen in the eight characters/staff of the hotel. Hence, the heightened moment of crisis, occasioned by mistrust and greed, as witnessed in the play. However, one thing that stands out in the play is the question of ‘what the future holds’, for the staff of Hotel Europa, for the immigrants trouping to Europe in search of greener pastures, and of course, for Europe!

Apart from the challenge posed by the language of the show, which is primarily German, another missing link would be the fact that whatever the producers intended to achieve with the production, didn’t seem to have come through. Reference to those eight countries were made but left undeveloped and that seemed to be a shortcoming for a play of that magnitude.

Inside 'Hotel Europa', a site-specific musical theatre 3

Scenes from Hotel Europa. Photos by ALEX WUNSCH

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