Angela Merkel slips off the political stage for dramatic effect

The German chancellor laying low, but new CDU leader’s bad jokes getting attention

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), speaks during the traditional Ash Wednesday party meeting in Demmin. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), speaks during the traditional Ash Wednesday party meeting in Demmin. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

 

Angela Merkel’s departure-by-degrees continued apace on Wednesday when the German chancellor skipped a traditional Ash Wednesday political rally.

After the last hurrah of the carnival season, the first day of Lent is usually a time for German leaders to let their hair down and deliver a few well-aimed jokes at their political rivals.

But instead of the real chancellor, Germans are getting used to seeing a fictional Merkel take to the stage. Angela I is a new play set in a near dystopian future: the German leader is struggling with her departure from politics, and Europe is struggling to manage the power vacuum.

During the performance the deposed Angela I is variously lost in the parliamentary lost property office, or shares a smoke with her driver, democracy falls apart and children run riot in yellow vests on a dry-ice-filled stage of Europe in decline.

Macbeth’s three witches get a look-in, suggesting the German leader “sedated democracy to death”.

Polarising effect

For playwright Katja Hensel, the chancellor’s dwindling stable influence has already exposed a continent that is “looking quite shaky”. As well as the European angle, the play explores Merkel’s polarising effect on her own voters.

Regardless of the reviews, the play offers a timely bookend to Merkel’s political career

“I know no one who has a neutral position towards her,” said Hensel on German radio, “and I find that interesting for theatre.”

Critics have seemed less interested, with one suggesting the play “spreads cliches and prejudices . . . without making clear what it’s all about.” Another suggested it contained as few surprises as the buttoned-up German leader, “so in that sense is a perfect fit for its subject”.

Regardless of the reviews, the play offers a timely bookend to Merkel’s political career. Three years before she became chancellor, she was already a leading lady in the 2002 production Angela: A National Opera.

The modern retelling of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, about a woman who schemes her way to become empress of ancient Rome, reached its dramatic crescendo when a singing Merkel shot – without success – an undead political rival.

Controversial joke

With Merkel increasingly off-stage, her successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was the star of Wednesday evening’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rally in eastern Germany. Her aim: to mobilise the party ahead of May’s European elections and put to bed a controversial joke about intersexuality.

At a pre-Lenten gathering she suggested intersexual toilets in Berlin were “for men who don’t know if they’re still allowed stand to pee or have to sit”. The joke, defended by her supporters as a harmless dig at political correctness, has prompted protests from others who see a deliberate side-swipe from a woman with a record.

Before becoming CDU leader, Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested same-sex marriage, which she opposes, was the start of a slippery slope to incestuous or polygamous unions.

Alongside an absent Angela Merkel, Brexit barely got a look-in at the Ash Wednesday rallies

On Wednesday Kramp-Karrenbauer dismissed her intersex toilet joke as a “casual remark”. The fuss it created, she suggested, was proof that “we have no other other problems in Germany”. “We are the most uptight people in the world,” she added.

Dismissed Brexit

Alongside an absent Angela Merkel, Brexit barely got a look-in at the Ash Wednesday rallies. While London and Brussels still grapple with the UK’s departure from the EU, German politicians dismissed Brexit in a sentence or two. The CDU leader said “you only have to look to the insanity being generated in the UK” over its EU departure to see the value of the bloc.

When she did address the EU border question, it was less about Northern Ireland than migration: “The big question for our time is protecting our outer border.”