Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview ../en/blog/index.html/rss=1 Pearson's Preview en-us info@schaubuehne.de info@schaubuehne.de Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview http://www.schaubuehne.de/images/schaubuehne.png http://www.schaubuehne.de/../en/blog/index.html/rss=1 890 116 Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview <![CDATA[Creative Unrest: Milo Rau’s »LENIN«]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/creative-unrest-milo-raus-lenin.html Mon, 02 Oct 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/creative-unrest-milo-raus-lenin.html by Joseph Pearson

I open the door to a darkened rehearsal space. In the gloom, below darkened rafters, is a large revolving set cast in golden gaslight. A world is being created there; it’s as if we have passed through a time machine, to a dacha in Russia in the autumn of 1923. Lenin is losing grip on reality; Stalin is rising in strength. We see key moments in the historic transfer of power, ones that will decide which form of Communism – Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist? – will dominate in coming decades.

Classical Marxists make little of the individual’s role in history, but here we are witness to personal struggles in an intimate, domestic, retreat. As director Milo Rau tells me, »What interested me was to treat the perception of Socialism and Lenin in Western Europe and Germany, but detached from the pop-culture clichés. What were these figures like in private life?« Rau is also interested in what he calls the »internal pressure of political groups – like the RAF – that are at times fed up or paranoid. A dacha is an excellent place for these developments, because it is so claustrophobic«. We follow the video camera’s perspectivevprojected on a large screen above the building – an itinerant view that roams from a living room, to a kitchen, bedroom, bath, all peopled by numerous crew and actors. Cameras peek through doors, from one space to the next, and out to a terrace where there are night sounds. Lenin steps out of a bathtub and dries herself with a towel.

»LENIN«, premiering on 19 October 2017, is different from Milo Rau productions that have played recently at the Schaubühne. It’s on a much grander scale. »The Europa Trilogy« focused on intense individual monologues, with few actors. »Compassion« was so minimal that it had only two actors. Now, we are presented with a large cast, in a technically complicated production that makes full use of the Schaubühne’s experience developed during other challenging pieces such as Katie Mitchell’s.

Yet, there are continuities with recent Rau productions. There is the concern with documentary sources. And the highly detailed set-design is very typical of Rau. It is irresistible: I want to walk through the rooms of this world, created by designers Anton Lukas and Silvie Naunheim, during a rehearsal break, to examine close up the old newspapers lying on tables with embroidered coverings. Or a broom standing in the corner. Towels messily restacked on top of each other, above the bathtub. A bed with ruffled sheets. A typewriter on the floor by the bed. An old medical kit on a chair nearby. Books standing, threatening, on a tall shelf behind the headboard where Lenin sleeps.

Every object on set is useful in some way. Nothing is simply decorative here; »use« creates an ambiance. It becomes the aesthetic. Human utility dominates on stage as well: the dacha is not the typical retreat for relaxation for its occupants, but a functional place. Every actor seems occupied, even if simply before a chess set. The themes of the action touch on use-value as well. The Soviet leaders work through the key transitional years of the revolution from Lenin to Stalin. Individual decisions – such as whether to make public Lenin’s testament of 1922, which warns that Stalin is dangerous – rather than great social movements, will change the course of the implementation of Communist theory in the 20th century.

The rehearsal is about to start again. I find my way back to a chair in the dark, trying not to trip over cables and bump into the dramaturge. Stalin, played by Damir Avdic, sits on the terrace with a bulletproof energy that tugs at you. A screen illuminates, and I see Lenin, the ethereal face of actor Ursina Lardi. She seems to stare straight at you, but her body is mysteriously hidden elsewhere on set. She speaks of Beethoven, the Appassionata Sonata. The slow movement plays. Andante con moto. All at once, the dacha is cast in a bourgeois sheen.

Marx wrote that the bourgeoisie performs an initial, heroic role, in the early stages of revolution. That class creates the conditions for a new world to emerge. Perhaps this whole stage – of worn, bourgeois, furnishings and still-life paintings – is but a snakeskin. Does the rotating set – the constant circular motion, and the functional world there, with all its contradictions and syntheses – suggest a dialectic?

I don’t use that word loosely. Rolf Bossart, whose essay »The Name of Lenin« is important to the production, draws on the work of Boris Groys when speaking about the »creative unrest« of Leninist thinking, while »Stalin made a dogma of standstill out of the mobile dialectic of Lenin«. This dogma eventually resembles Lenin’s mummified corpse, which Stalin put on display against the wishes of the deceased’s widow. The production is, in many ways, about what the moving set is doing – a refutation of this stasis.

Can we still make politics this way? And not just theatre?

***

I sit down with Milo Rau for an interview. Milo is an un-selfconscious, forty-year old, with two kids, who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He is gregarious and unafraid to smile; in fact, he beams. I have my suspicion that this is the healthiest attitude for someone working on subjects – the stuff of Rau’s International Institute of Political Murder – as difficult as justice, insurrection, migration, or genocide.

I ask Rau about the difficult subject matter of this project – the legacy of Communism – and how he sees the transition from Leninism to Stalinism.

He replies »My production of ›Compassion‹ already asks the question: if not all people are living successfully in this world, do we will limit our concern to the successful future of just a small group? Lenin asks: what are we waiting for, really: when all are not free, then nobody is free. When the revolution is not international, it hasn’t happened. That is the truth of Marxist revolution: you can’t succeed in a single land or in one party, or limit it to a small group. But this is the moment – in 1923 – that the revolutions in Germany have failed, despite some street battles still raging in Hamburg. After this failure, the Stalinist one-land revolutionary model takes over. Lenin dies, Trotsky is isolated from the party. Concern for liberation in the field of identity politics – such as the inclusion of women in positions of power – is isolated from that of class warfare. 1923 is the time when we can say that Communism has failed. From now on, there will only be a focus on Russian power-politics«.

The brutality of the Stalinism that emerged from this transition is now, for many people, the very definition of Communism. Rau does not shy away sanitising what the Soviets ultimately did to the ideology. The violence surrounding the Soviet project is, in fact, enhanced by the presence of two children on the set, who are bilingual in German and Russian. (I’d seen them earlier playing tick-tack-toe with the actors during the long rehearsal). I ask Rau about what role they play.

Rau recounts a scene from the production, »Lenin turns to a child and says he would like to shoot him, impale him with a bayonet, and throw him into a mass grave. Lenin asks ›would that be fun?‹ and the child replies, ›Yes, leader‹. There is a reason for this brutal discussion. The problem of theatre, as art, is how constantly to increase the aesthetic of terror in the face of the difficulty of translating what happens in the world, what people do, to the stage. What touches everyone is a 7-year old girl or a 9-year old boy. The presence of children – and they are amazing, and it’s only just their second day on stage – completely changes our relationship to terror. It has an immediate effect on the way adults act and how tender they become«.

Indeed, the presence of children in this environment is all the more frightening because they don’t seem to understand the brutality of what they are hearing. Yet, they will be the inheritors of a revolution gone off the rails.

But while I am quick to judge and dismiss this failure, Rau is nuanced. And here, we return to an aspect we have considered when looking at the stage set. Rau calls the world he has created »associative« in character, a world that eschews a simple message. We are still in that moment of transformation, 1923, with the revolving panels of the dacha transforming the Soviet leaders. Lenin moves from being a woman, played by Ursina Lardi, to becoming the bald and bearded icon with which we are familiar from 1930s socialist-realist films. From a world of many languages, the stage becomes eventually a monolingual place filmed in black and white. But, for now, the revolution is still in flux, and resists predictable plotting or convenient characterisations; it aims as well to resist satisfying a simple neoliberal desire which might reduce it to a message and »entertainment«.

Rau leans back and tells me that he is well beyond such market expectations: »I think it’s a shame that so often that artworks that do not have a linear narrative are judged less positively. But I’m also convinced we shouldn’t care too much«. I suggest to him that when a production looks beyond the expectations of the market, it is the moment when we paradoxically succeed because we show higher respect for audiences.

Milo Rau’s new production is, arguably, and appropriately, more Leninist than Stalinist in character (with, I’d say, an analytical-Marxist appreciation for the role of individual agency). Its associative spirit is closer to what Bossart calls »Lenin’s thought and action that works strategically with all contradictions, and brings them into extreme positions, resulting in maximum freedom and mobility in the options of political action. But also a maximum instability and destructive restlessness.« And then the set revolves once more – to the sound of a ticking clock held up to the ear of a child – and we are swept into the future.

Interview in German, all translations by Joseph Pearson.

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<![CDATA[Class Traitors </br>Didier Eribon and Thomas Ostermeier's »Returning to Reims«]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/class-traitors-brdidier-eribon-and-thomas-ostermeiers-returning-to-reims.html Tue, 19 Sep 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/class-traitors-brdidier-eribon-and-thomas-ostermeiers-returning-to-reims.html by Joseph Pearson

»I had been convicted twice, socially speaking: one conviction was based on class, the other on sexuality«, writes French philosopher Didier Eribon (*1953), biographer of Michel Foucault and Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. The central theme explored in his autobiographical essay, »Returning to Reims« (»Retour à Reims«, 2009), is a young man’s alienation from the French provinces, after refashioning himself in the Parisian metropolis. It is not simply a »small town boy« story, but one which narrates the fate of the left as a viable political movement for working people.

Eribon’s memoire revisits his impoverished upbringing in a »garden city« on the periphery of Reims in the 50s and 60s, and his subsequent break from his family. The central question is why, for so long, did Eribon narrate his rebellion through the lens of his sexuality (as a gay man fleeing the intolerant periphery) rather than through class (as a »class traitor« escaping his working-class roots)? »Why, when I have paid so much attention to the role played by feelings of shame in the processes of subjection and subjectivation, have I written so little about forms of shame having to do with class?« His answer is about shame. He endeavored to integrate himself into a rarefied intellectual Parisian milieu where he was ashamed of working class »ways of speaking and being« and racism.

I’ve spent a morning in rehearsals with director Thomas Ostermeier and his cast. We later meet in his office, looking over the elegant stretch of Kurfürstendamm, and I wonder why the themes of this book speak specifically to him – so much so that he decided to direct a production based on the essay.

Ostermeier replies, »My first and immediate reaction was to say: at least I am not alone. Because my background – although in many ways different – is comparable to Eribon’s, and I know very well the feeling of shame of where you are from. I am familiar with patriarchal families, traditional family structures, with violence. And my parents always told us – we are three brothers – that we will not be going to high school, and that we will instead leave school at fourteen, get a proper job, and bring some money home. That was the plan«.

»But things did not go as planned«, I suggest.

»No, we had to fight hard to go to high school in order to go to university later. Also, my father was a soldier. It was hard because all three of us refused to go to the army. There was plenty of conflict at home, as in Eribon’s family. I didn’t have to face the issues of homosexuality; I was not confronted with homophobia (even though I know the surroundings were homophobic in our very provincial reality). But this story – of somebody trying to get out of the provinces, trying to arrive in a bigger city and make a career in the intellectual climate there, always being ashamed of his background and not talking about it, constantly trying to adapt to a milieu that was not mine – I understood. Eribon calls it being a »class traitor«, and that is my story as well«.

He continues, »I also share with Didier a radical leftist past, and I’m also obsessed with, and passionate about, the question: what is the responsibility of the left for what went wrong politically in the last 30-40 years in Western societies? How should we tell the history of the social democratic left, of the Labour party in Britain, the Parti Socialiste in France?«

Eribon speaks in his book of the failure of the traditional left for working people. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, in particular, the left accommodated itself with neoliberalism, and did not remain connected to its roots. Eribon opines, »However paradoxical it might seem to some people, I am convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on – now even by those who had once been their representatives and defenders«.

Who are those representatives? Intellectuals on the left in the metropolitan world are often unintelligible to the very people they are meant to represent, and they inhabit worlds which have no relation to the industrial and post-industrial landscapes of provincial France. Right-wing parties such as the Front National (or, Trump’s brand of Republicanism, May’s Brexit-Toryism, for that matter) often speak more plainly and convincingly, using a rhetoric of racism and scapegoating.

For an American perspective, I spoke to Michael Lucey, Eribon’s English translator, and a Professor at Berkeley, who positions the arguments of »Returning to Reims« in the context of US politics: »The pressing social question in the US seems crucially about how to enact a progressive politics that is both a struggle against economic domination and a struggle against racism and other related forms of prejudice (e.g. against other people of color). Eribon’s book is interesting in this regard in its attempt to account for the rise of the Front National and the wedge the FN works to insert between anti-racist struggles and struggles against economic domination. In that, it could be said that Eribon’s book reveals the presence in France of a phenomenon that has marked all of US history, and that it underlines the futility of trying to understand economic domination in isolation from other forms of social violence«.

Regarding the future of European politics, Eribon and Ostermeier touch on a related central problem: will the victims of neoliberalism (who have, nonetheless, a different history from those in the United States) throw their vote behind the forces of intolerance and nationalism, and paradoxically for policies that are less likely to benefit them (such as Brexit)? How must the left redesign itself to reach a disillusioned public? It’s an important question on the premiere night of this production, when the Germans vote in their elections, and the right-wing and intolerant Alternative for Germany party vies to double their voter-share.

*
Earlier, I find myself walking through a series of doors behind the Schaubühne studio. There is an intimate practice space at the back, where Ostermeier and the cast sit for a run-through. In one week is the premiere. Actor Nina Hoss positions herself behind a microphone.

Ostermeier recounts, »First, there was the wish to do the book, but after that came the question of how to do it. I did not want to make a dramatic adaptation of the story of Eribon, and I don’t see how this would work: him sitting at the kitchen table and talking about Foucault with his mother?«

Instead, Ostermeier crafted a scenario: the characters are in the final stages of production of a documentary film based on Eribon’s book. When they are not working, the characters discuss the book’s themes. Nina Hoss provides the voice-over for the film’s narration.

I risk sounding sycophantic when I say that observing Hoss act close-up is revelatory. There are two – seemingly opposing – impulses working through her acting: her gestures are extremely precise, but she is so relaxed and natural that the audience hardly notices. I am reminded of concert pianists who have so mastered the underlying structure that they can proceed on a level of interpretation that appears effortlessly charismatic.

Ostermeier’s piece also has an easy, comfortable, texture: it is chatty, slow, a conversation into which you are invited to fall back. Ostermeier keeps the entire rehearsal room in a deep hush, as he sits on a swivel chair and listens – at this late stage of the process – making micro-adjustments that result in macro-changes to the atmosphere of certain scenes. If the character playing the director of the Eribon film uses a microphone to communicate with Nina Hoss, it creates a sense of distance or professionalism. If the production assistant argues with the director in a lowered voice, it conveys much more hostility than an open fight. It’s as if Ostermeier, like a sound engineer, is sitting behind a mixing-table, carefully turning the dials.

In more than one sense, Ostermeier’s »Returning to Reims« is a descendant of his most recent production at the Schaubühne, »Professor Bernhardi«, and represents Ostermeier’s continued fascination with people at work. But while »Bernhardi« looked at how anti-Semitism can run rife in the workplace of a clinic, »Returning to Reims« discusses the world of rehearsals and artistic production – a world closer to the Schaubühne. There is self-consciousness here, as Ostermeier reflects on his transposition of the book to the stage. But the production becomes »meta meta« when I get confused watching a rehearsal about people pretending to rehearse. At one point, I stopped being able to tell the difference between the actors’ scripted commentaries and when they went off-script. Are they reciting their lines or talking among themselves? Without the script before me, I cannot tell. The acting is remarkably naturalistic.

The Schaubühne piece also draws on the actors’ lives, with Nina Hoss wedding the text to German politics by reflecting on her own father, Willi Hoss, who was a Communist trade unionist and Bundestag member of the German Greens. Her childhood memories with her father, visiting locations in rural Latin America, open up Eribon’s narrative by making comparisons to global poverty; these encounters in the »developing« world balance the picture of poverty in post-war Reims.

The show also contributes a beautifully produced and convincing documentary film about Eribon.
»It was important, what is going to be seen on the screen«, says Ostermeier, »I was sure there would be a lot of archival material. But then I started to think we could ask Didier to participate as well, and he agreed. Surprisingly, Didier’s mother also agreed immediately to be part of it. Many of the places we visited were very emotional for Didier. It became not only an artistic project but a human one as well. It was very emotional to experience these places with him«.

The film is worth watching in its own right. The images are full of refraction, such as from windows in factory spaces. These reflections suggest memory, a sense of contemplation, of nostalgia, pain, and return. I see Didier Eribon reflected in the window of a train, sitting stationary, as a landscape of rural France rushes past, as he is hurtled towards Reims, towards the past. The addition of the archival footage adds yet an additional layer of documentary evidence to the, at times, anecdotal narrative of Eribon’s book.

The production first premiered in English at the Manchester International Festival, opening on 5 July 2017, and has now been reworked in German. Ostermeier tells me, »I was surprised when started to rehearse the German adaptation. I expected it would be more difficult to transform it. We made changes in the end, to the story of Nina, we went deeper into the politics, as Germans are aware of the history of the Green Party and the GDR. Perhaps Germans share that passion for a journey into the recent past of the country, from another perspective. In Britain, if you talk about Rudi Dutschke, Heinrich Böll, Wolf Biermann, only a few very well-informed people will know about these figures... I think our audience in Berlin, a lot of them, know exactly what this evening is speaking about«.

This brings us again to the timing of the German premiere: election night, 24 September 2017. Most likely we have a clear winner, but we also have a situation where it is possible that the AfD will have made unprecedented in-roads, establishing their position in the political arena. What can we learn from Didier Eribon?

In France, the transformation from the Communist Party to the Front National is not straightforward: there is plenty of regional and generational variation, and older people are still the least likely group to vote for the FN. But one should nonetheless ask why the AfD is likely to be very successful in a former Communist region, Eastern Germany? (Although not exclusively, one need only look at Mannheim). What it is about the populist right’s language that appeals to the disaffected; is the AfD the »final recourse« for working people (of a former country?) to define a collective national identity; and how has the left failed these voters? What can theatre do about it? Or is it too a talking-shop of the metropolitan elite, situated far from working people’s concerns?

Thomas Ostermeier, for his part, tells me that he plans to the take his production eventually to France, and even perhaps to its provincial towns, the front lines of these political developments. I wonder how this story might play, too, in rural Sachsen-Anhalt, or for that matter Charlottesville. The »Return to Reims« is not, in the end, only a personal journey, but a political one, as we confront the phenomenon of power shifting from self-regarding capitals to the anxieties and anger resounding from the so-called »periphery«.

All translations of Didier Eribon’s French text in English are quoted from Michael Lucey’s elegant translation, »Returning to Reims« (Semiotext(e), 2013).

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<![CDATA[»Not a Piña Colada«</br>Herbert Fritsch, Volksbühne Exiles, and the Giant Blimp]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/not-a-pia-coladabrherbert-fritsch-volksbuehne-exiles-and-the-giant-blimp.html Fri, 15 Sep 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/not-a-pia-coladabrherbert-fritsch-volksbuehne-exiles-and-the-giant-blimp.html by Joseph Pearson

One is almost obligated to begin a preview about »Zeppelin«, Director Herbert's Fritsch's first production at the Schaubühne, by touching on the controversy that has engaged the press and Berlin cultural scene for more than two years now: the fate of the Volksbühne. Herbert Fritsch worked for almost two decades as an actor and later as a director at the institution, until it came under new leadership this autumn (resulting in the departure of almost every artistic collaborator who had once worked in the space).

When we sit down in the Schaubühne's café, Fritsch tells me wistfully: »What I find truly sad is how much hate came out in the Volksbühne debate, and the way in which the theatre was ended, which was unacceptable and undemocratic. You have now a crack running through the whole cultural scene in Berlin«.

Perhaps one inadvertent, and positive, outcome is that, with the dispersal of so many people from the Volksbühne, the Schaubühne has benefited from incoming talent. On leaving, Fritsch brought with him an international troop of actors who have joined the Schaubühne's ensemble: »the Fritsch People«, as I heard them called shorthand upstairs in the administrative offices. They include, for example, the singer Ruth Rosenfeld whose life between theatre and music and itinerant biography seem as diverse as the cosmopolitan Ödön von Horvath's – she was born in Los Angeles, raised in New York and Israel, and now a Berliner. Or there's Florian Anderer, who has appeared already in a dozen Fritsch productions, now acrobatically leaping above the stage on the suspended skeleton of a great blimp. He recounts, »I was bidding on a vintage Led Zeppelin CD on eBay, then the phone rang offering me the Schaubühne job. By the time I came back to my computer, all excited, I'd lost the CD, but I'd won a different kind of Zeppelin«.

When I walk into the theatre for rehearsals, I found the »Fritsch People«, with other ensemble actors, singing Offenbach's Barcarolle »Belle nuit« as a warm up. I wish I could properly convey the lightness their singing gave to the hall, and the camaraderie I felt from the group; they were having fun, working together in a space that gives them autonomy. I felt precisely why so many people are drawn to the theatre in the first place: the magic of making beautiful things together.

Earlier, in our discussion in the café, I suggested to Herbert Fritsch – bespectacled, thick-haired, charming, gregarious – that his »Zeppelin«, based on the various works of Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938), is a »collage«. Fritsch, however, corrects me, saying he would rather speak of a »cocktail«.

»What kind of cocktail?« I ask, »Fruity with an umbrella?«

»No, fun but at the same time bitter. A cocktail that is only sweet is... terrible!«

»So, it's not a Piña Colada – «

»No, not a Piña Colada. Cocktails are interesting when they have something explosive in them«.

»You mean, lots of alcohol?«

»Yes.«

»Or did someone slip drugs into it?«

»In a very minimal concentration. It can cause euphoria«.

»Maybe it's a Dark and Stormy«, I suggest, thinking of the drink's oscillation of light and shadow, »With the dark rum floating on top«.

»Yes, a Dark and Stormy. But it has a strawberry on top«.

The cocktail metaphor isn't just for fun. It is an efficient way to describe his technique. Fritsch elucidates: »What I do is shake up the playwright's texts so the linearity is broken. What you notice, in the quality of Horváth's texts, is that they are very powerful. And you can take the lines from twenty pieces and shake them up, and they can still have meaning. Perhaps not exactly 'meaning', but something that the mind can comprehend. There is sense, but there is also displacement, a kind of literary cubism. And that stimulates me; it's like a cocktail«.

Ödön von Horváth was himself a mixed-up concoction: a Hungarian-speaking Habsburg product, born in Croatia, educated all over the Empire and Germany, who ended in flight from the Nazis, first to Vienna in 1933, then to Paris after the 1938 Anschluss. (He died that year in a storm, when a tree branch fell on him on the Champs-Élysées). Not only was his biography eclectic, but he also had a distanced relationship to the German language, since he was not a native speaker and learned it only in his teens. We agree that it would be interesting to read a study about authors who choose to write in foreign languages. »Like Joseph Conrad«, says Fritsch. Or Beckett.

This distance makes Horváth's relationship to language more abstract. He paid great attention to German's sonorous elements as opposed to just its denotation. And, when seeing the rehearsal of »Zeppelin«, I saw how Fritsch takes the opportunity to play creatively with the musicality of the author's words.

(I might add here – as we have elections later in the week – that there is also a political dimension to Horváth's distance from the German language. His political moment, that of the 20s and 30s, is one of anti-fascism (a dominant theme in his plays »Youth Without God« or »Tales of the Vienna Woods«). Arguably, people who can make an abstraction of language, as the tissue of »culture«, are less likely to be susceptible to Nazism, because they have worked beyond culture and language as something essential or natural, or superior. The political is not Fritsch's goal, but it's an accidental I appreciate as Germans go to the polls).

Distance is an essential component of »Zeppelin«, and Fritsch describes his technique as one of »filters«. He tells me, »What interests me is a filter as interpretation. These filters can be many things: body postures, ways of enunciation, the physical distance between characters. A displacement of a situation on stage thus provokes something from the text«.

Spatial filters aid an exploration that sets what Fritsch does apart from, say, both Brecht and Beckett. »Brecht had a message, a goal«, he tells me, »And I don't. I discuss the subject, to provoke, but perhaps we can do nothing with it. Perhaps it has no meaning«.

We are not meant to arrive at a prescribed end-point. Rather, we are left are open-ended, »at play«. Is the work, then, more Beckettian in this sense? In its attention to word play, perhaps. But this too is a false ending: because the lightness of Fritsch floats up into the air as opposed to being sucked down like Beckett's »birth astride a grave«. Fritsch's light is not painful, but rather luminous.

What »Zeppelin« shares with, say, Beckett, is that it is funny. Much of the comedy is physical, and Fritsch's sense of humour provides yet another layer of distance from the material. He tells me, »In Horváth: every sentence has strength, and seriousness, but also a great humour, a real lightness. It's an everyday problem to believe that when a piece is not serious, then it is not profound. This is biggest misunderstanding in German theatre as a whole. It has to do with the German feeling of guilt, which has a great importance in the culture, and which has not yet dissipated. I think when one tries to find lightness, one is in a better position to process the terrible things that happened in this country«.

»Is this guilt what accounts for the humourlessness that one so often finds in post-war German art production?« I ask, speaking admittedly very broadly.

He replies, »Germans should stop feeling petrified before the subject of their guilt, and  be able to use comedy and lighter modes to address it. Horváth is sombre, but it is a sombreness that is also trying to float up. Like the Zeppelin, or blimp, which is heavy on the ground, but then swells«.

And, indeed, the blimp is the central metaphor of this theatre piece. It's hard to miss. It hangs over the stage like the iron skeleton of an enormous whale. A huge, spellbinding, cage, it is an image from Horváth's play, »Kasimir und Karoline«, which is set in a Munich Octoberfest, after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. The characters stare up at the swaying form suspended above the festive crowd. In Fritsch's piece, the actors hang from the blimp's bars, inside and out. There are moments of fright when they try to lift it, and it threatens to fall on them. But then they pass, almost magically, unscathed through the grid. What is their relationship to this great structure? Is the Zeppelin threatening? Is it light or heavy? The stage lights give varying illusions of its weight. The shape defies what is interior and exterior. It is a perfect object for projection. Meanwhile, it sways, and oscillates, dreamlike.

Interview conducted in German. Translation by Joseph Pearson.

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<![CDATA[Theatre Shouldn’t Make You Feel Safe </br> Marius von Mayenburg’s »Peng«]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/theatre-shouldnt-make-you-feel-safe-br-marius-von-mayenburgs-peng.html Thu, 11 May 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/theatre-shouldnt-make-you-feel-safe-br-marius-von-mayenburgs-peng.html by Joseph Pearson

»I started writing this play after the US presidential election«, Marius von Mayenburg tells me, »I was already working on another play. But then this came up. It was an allergic reaction – this play – to what happened. I must say that Trump was not the first thing that happened. It felt like the last thing. We had had Brexit, Erdoğan, Putin, Orbán, Kaczyński, a long list. I observed a longing for macho men in societies, for leaders who provide very simple solutions to complicated problems. Since, in theatre, our worst fears can result in the worst outcome, I created this character ›Peng‹«.

Peng! It’s a name that is delivered with a bang. It snaps like a slogan: Peng! Mayenburg tells me he wanted a name that »pops«, which instantiates the reaction of those who desire radical political solutions: »the idea that people want a change, for something to happen, for better or for worse«.

Peng is personified as a monstrous child, played by the inimitable Sebastian Schwarz. I watch the actor practice his monologues, lashing violently out against anyone or anything in the world that does not approve of him. The contemporary political resonance of Ralf Peng’s racism, womanising, selfishness, atavism, and inability to take criticism, is not easy to ignore.

Mayenburg walks thoughtfully around Schwarz as the actor delivers his soliloquies. Occasionally he intervenes, directing a stress on this or the other word (one can intuit from this precision that Mayenburg is both writer and director of the piece). Schwarz is, meanwhile, wearing the most ridiculous (and revealing) long underwear. He has a way of moving around the stage in them lasciviously. The mix of adult and childlike is purposefully irksome. As Ralf Peng opines in the play: »I grapple at every woman’s blouse or between their legs because: I am still a child. I do it ›innocently as a bab‹. Purely out of›curiosity and joyful exploration‹«.

The parents who brought this monstrous child into the world believe he can do no wrong. »Peng« is full of hilariously disturbing situations in which Peng’s inexcusable behaviour – on the playground, with the music teacher, or towards the babysitter – is somehow excused. The monstrosity of family life is on display. One wonders – in the scene when Peng chews apart a teddy bear, as if there’s a crocodile inside the baby carriage rather than a human...or perhaps something all too human – whether this play might be used as an effective form of birth control.

Mayenburg elucidates, »There’s a certain blindness that parents have towards their children, they don’t see what’s going wrong because they love them so much, and parents compete in idealising their kids as especially special or gifted. That a boy can walk at ten months doesn’t mean he’ll become a Mozart. It’s this strange phenomenon that I wanted to address. There’s also something else I realised, about power. I think people who have a lot of power tend to regress. When you tell them something is not possible, only two kinds of humans react »I know it’s not, but I want it anyway«: bosses and children«.

»Is that the link between political power and family life in this piece?« I ask.

»Yes. It’s very childish, this tendency – what Erdoğan does, for example – to be offended by everything that is said. It’s ridiculous. Every grownup would say so. Trump has a problem with the number of people who appear at his inauguration. My birthday was the bigger one! No mine was! It’s completely childish. Although it’s important to say that this play is not about Trump, but rather about a certain mindset in societies that creates characters like Trump«.

»Is the childish violence about which you speak something more general about male behaviour? Or, rather, the conduct of a certain kind of male?« I ask.

»I very much believe in culture. It is something we need somehow to put this beast that males can become behind a fence. I think it needs to be done. There is a moment in the play when I say men kill and women don’t. Of course this is an exaggeration, but this exaggeration is demonstrated by the characters themselves. And I really think that the world would be a better place with more women in power, even if they are called Merkel or May, who are also the products of a male-dominated world«.

»Your early play »Fireface« (»Feuergesicht), which you wrote in 1997, is also about children and their capacities for radical action. Is this a revisiting of those themes, but from a perhaps more experienced perspective?« I ask.

Mayenburg replies, »It feels strange to talk about »Fireface« now. Twenty years is a very long time. It almost feels like somebody else wrote the play. I can only say that I was very angry when I wrote it and that I was also very angry when I wrote »Peng«. But I didn't write »Fireface« to encourage kids to kill their parents. I hope that play is more about the general issues surrounding growing up, having parents, and being in the world as a young person. »Peng« is probably less psychological. I wanted it to be a play about political emotions. About the irrational longing for explosions and sensations in the political sphere. I do not like the speed with which political situations now change. I am not a fan of revolution. I believe in evolution and would always prefer this to revolution. I want spectacular sporting events, spectacular theatre, and a spectacular life, but I don’t want spectacular politics. Politics become spectacular when people get killed. I prefer boring and slow politics.«.

»Peng« is a story set in the apartments and playgrounds of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, a mix of scathing social criticism and comedy. The director tells me, »Comedy is the back-door through which I can try to enter the minds of the audience, with some unpleasant thoughts, when the front door is locked«.

Some audience members might find some of the humour – surrounding sensitive subjects such as domestic violence towards women – hard hitting and upsetting. But I do think that we need to resist moves to sanitise social criticism in theatre, in the name of political correctness, and turn theatre into a neutered »safe space«. Mayenburg is not interested in allowing the audience get too comfortable, permitting them to feel »safe«.

He tells me, »Theatre can’t be about being polite. It can’t be about showing people who do the right thing. If I show a murderer on stage, I am not suggesting this is how we should all act. Theatre needs to attack, so I would prefer to show a politically incorrect rather than a politically correct character on stage in order to offer a politically relevant play. Otherwise, we end up in a church-like sermon, preaching to people who think the same as we do. That would be boring and not at all intellectually challenging. If I see something terrible, it activates me«.

»I don’t think people should be offended if characters use language on stage that is offensive. Maybe it will even make them think thoughts for the first time that they would normally not have. I’m trying to make it difficult for them to resist such thoughts, which have far more to do with ourselves than we like to believe. It’s easy to point the finger at the USA and say: they have this terrible leader. We have the same tendencies here in Germany, with AfD and Pegida. This longing for simple solutions to complicated problems – shooting people who try to come into our country, because they try to escape war, for example – is also a German idea. We don’t need to point fingers at other nations.«

I step out from the Schaubühne practice stage – where I have seen men grappling ferociously in boxer masks, muttering angrily from mouth guards, and then playing on an enormous green slide – and I am intrigued by how, just a half-year after what can only be called a catastrophe in American politics, there is already an invigorated artistic response in the German theatre. That art flourishes in hard times is a weary historical hypothesis – I’d prefer to think that we can’t predict how artists might react – but plays like »Peng« make one entertain the possibility that there is a compelling link.

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<![CDATA[FIND 17 </br> Hamnet and the Theatre of »Unnaturalism«. Dead Centre Return to the Schaubühne]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-br-hamnet-and-the-theatre-of-unnaturalism-dead-centre-return-to-the-schaubuehne.html Tue, 04 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-br-hamnet-and-the-theatre-of-unnaturalism-dead-centre-return-to-the-schaubuehne.html by Joseph Pearson

FIND17 is now well underway – you can tell when the Schaubühne café is abuzz with voices speaking French, Italian, and Greek, as well as German. And I am sitting across from two very articulate young men from Dublin who are familiar faces: Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel. The duo brought »LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« to the festival last year, and now they are premiering their work »Hamnet«. No, I did not just misspell the name of the piece. Over our conversation, it becomes clear just how important a single letter can be. The piece explores the story of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11 in the year 1596 while his father was absent with work. Three years later, presumably in his grief, the Bard wrote the play »Hamlet«.

Joseph Pearson: What made you two write and direct a play about the (dead) 11-year old son of Shakespeare?

Bush Moukarzel: The name. We were just one letter away from something recognisable. We knew it would seem like a typo in a lot of brochures, and thought it lovely that the audience would be drawn into why there is an »n« as opposed to an »l«. The play starts with the misreading. It’s a good way to start. Of course, there is almost nothing known about Hamnet Shakespeare, only that he was born and eleven years later died. It was attractive to have to conjure up material, out of the virtue that there was none.

How has it been working with Ollie West, your 12-year old actor playing the 11-year old?

Ben Kidd: I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but we had no experience of working professionally with kids. We had no conception of how it would be. I still feel like it was just a singular experience: of walking into a consciousness that is so different from ours. He interacts so differently with the idea of a theatre event. For him, it’s a learned event he is going to perform, as the carrier of the energy of the show. We are so used to working with adults; we realised there is a lot that we just take for granted. I don’t mean this negatively; it was remarkable to be with someone without an ego, without anxiety, and – being young and not having performed before – without any expectations for himself. It was extraordinary and intriguing. I still don’t know what he understands of the content of the show. He’s really bright, we love him to bits, but you don’t have with him the conversations you normally have with actors. It would be fascinating to know what goes on in his head.

Bush: I still don’t think I know how to direct a 12-year old. But Ollie has really set us up for working with adults: he’s taught us patience and clarity. But not how to work with children.

Ben: And kids bring a sensibility to the room that a lot of adults have learned to bury.

What are these sentiments that adults have learned to bury?

Bush: Adults pretend to listen. To directors’ notes for example! But Ollie doesn’t pretend to listen. In fact, he pretends not to listen. He pretends he is not interested in the adult world. While adults pretend they are interested in the adult world, but they are not.

How did you find him, choose him?

Bush: His parents are theatre people, his mother Annie Ryan performed in »Chekhov’s First Play« and her husband, Michael West, is a playwright. They are both the artistic directors of the Corn Exchange in Ireland. I knew them socially and professionally. And their kid Ollie acted in a development version of »Chekhov’s First Play«. It was only one showing, with an audience of 40 people. He didn’t have a lot to do, but what he did, he did precisely. He only had one line, but he had choreography, and he nailed it. That gave us the confidence and courage to conceive the show around him. It was ambitious though: can you get a young performer to hold the stage for one hour on his own?

Ben: He seemed to have the necessary poise and –

Bush: and the necessary vanity –

Ben: a godsend, really, we found out later. I am amazed by how comfortable some people are with people looking at them. I find that deeply anxiety-inducing when it happens. A lot of people are like me. But you can’t be that way if you want to perform. Ollie could have been like me.

Bush: Not all children have vanity and self-awareness. But as a young performer, Ollie has it, but in a way he –

Ben: he hasn’t learned to ration it, harness it, yet. Directors make actors use their vanity as a craft, and Ollie’s quite brilliant. For example, we had a rehearsal with some invited audience members, and they laughed a bit, and Ollie knew how to ride that laughter in a remarkable way that you can’t teach. He had a poise and quality to him that was perfect.

Bush: He’s always checking his hair [to make sure it’s neat]. And I said: come on, Ollie, you’re playing a dead boy. And when you’re dead you don’t care what your hair looks like. He took that note.

Ben: It’s odd, really. He’s never once raised any queries about why he’s playing a dead boy.

Bush: That is because he lives in a cartoon universe where things are both themselves and their opposite, and he’s comfortable with that. He’s versed in the worlds of SpongeBob SquarePants and Adventure Time. They’re malleable universes. Surrealism comes naturally to him. He’s not versed in realism. Naturalism is alien. »Unnaturalism« and surrealism is his Jesus. It was self-evident to him that you would tell a strange story strangely.

I imagine getting a kid to remember fifty minutes of lines was a challenge?

Ben: It was »the« challenge.

Bush: We needed to assess intelligently at intervals to understand where he was at, with enough turnaround time in case he couldn’t do it. He really took us to the line on that. He didn’t go home to learn lines. He went to school and did homework, but not homework on the play. So we needed to encourage him to speak the lines and perform when we had him. But he managed. You have to remember; he’s never had a hangover. His brain welcomes reality into it. Lines go in, and they don’t go out. He has a receptive brain and body.

»LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« have both toured for years now, but your 12-year old protagonist won’t stay 12 forever. Does this mean people should see »Hamnet« while they can?

Ben: It has a puberty, an ending to it. »LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« mind you have been recast a number of times. But recasting a child actor would be onerous in a many ways.

Bush: If he gets old enough to play Hamlet, then we are done. There is, though, something quite attractive to it having a short life span. Potentially, it will be as short as Hamnet’s short life.

Ben: Hamnet was a short historical fact. A little typo. Forgotten by the culture. But the show won’t be!

Could you tell us about the connection between Hamnet’s short life and »Hamlet« the play? How do you imagine the connection?

Ben: Harold Bloom, the critic, wrote an essay on »Hamlet« called »Poem Unlimited«. The phrase appears in the play itself, in »Hamlet«. The idea is that the universe of »Hamlet« is a poem unlimited.

Bush: No performance can capture the expanse of the play, no interpretation of the character can catch up with its magnitude. And so that’s why Bloom conceives it as the limits of representation and consciousness. The subtitle of our piece is »Poem Limited«. It’s all too knowable, unfortunately.

Ben: Although that doesn’t preclude the idea that you shouldn’t try.

There is almost nothing known about Hamnet’s life. How, then, did you do your research?

Bush: We had two methods for research. We looked to Shakespeare biographies, and to the experiences of children in the time – how they lived and how they died, and how that world was presaging this one. But we also had an eclectic method, which was that I read all the Shakespeare plays and extracted any moments when a parent spoke to a child. With them, I made a document. We imagined that Hamnet’s problem of not knowing his father, who was away, could be helped by an indirect self-help book, of all the fathers and mothers of Shakespeare’s plays telling him how to live. The problem is that he doesn’t understand them, they are cryptic codes he cannot crack. He can’t change an »n« to an »l«.

Ben: But organising a script around this idea was too complicated. It meant including a large amount of Shakespeare’s text, and it was brutal on the ear for the audience. So what we did became a little more conceptual, a little arch.

Bush: But the original plan informs the backbone of how Hamnet navigates the universe, how Hamnet would turn that »n« into an »l«, and he casts the audience as children of Shakespeare. They join Hamnet in the cultural decoding of a canon. Hamnet’s problem becomes the audience’s.

And might you tease us a little with your style? The plays you brought to the Schaubühne last year were strange and surreal, also somewhat Beckettian. What can we expect this week?

Bush: One thing I am keen to mention is that one of the things we wanted to pursue with this image of Hamnet, as a dead boy, was »unnaturalism«. Something so self-evident as death is experienced in grief as unacceptable. Its experience is unnatural. So, in fact, Hamnet’s scenario, which is so inevitable – that he lived and died – wants to become sort of a cry of this »Poem Limited«, as the world shouldn’t be as it is. He doesn’t want to let it. Tonally and emotionally, I thought it would be quite joyous to imagine a type of theatre called »unnaturalism«.

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<![CDATA[FIND 17 </br> Forgetting How to Fail. A Conversation with Roger Bernat]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-br-forgetting-how-to-fail-a-conversation-with-roger-bernat.html Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-br-forgetting-how-to-fail-a-conversation-with-roger-bernat.html by Joseph Pearson

Many narratives spun by the news cycle are worthy of scepticism (is the far right really posed to sweep the continent? Are we really living in a constant state of war against terror?). Nonetheless, the news media’s emphasis on conflict frames the debate. One old chestnut, recurrent since the Brexit and Trump debacles, is whether important decisions about governance should be left up to citizens. Are they well-enough informed? Aren’t they ill-fed information in the echo-chamber of social media and »fake news«? Aristotle warned us of the democratic mob, but he could not anticipate how electronic media might allow mob mentality to flourish. Is this not the origin of nefarious populism, dubbed the great danger to our democratic societies? Talking to Barcelona-based director Roger Bernat, director of »Pending Vote« (»Pendiente de Voto«) at Schaubühne’s FIND 2017, one begins to think differently about citizens and their democratic engagement.

»Pending Vote« might be called immersive theatre, but Bernat prefers the term »emersive« theatre – he is more interested in what emerges from his experiment. In the production, the Schaubühne’s Globe Theatre acts as a parliament (and Bernat tells me the space is perfect for his purposes). The audience are the political actors given voting machines; they discuss issues of the day, and their democratic choices are registered via a computer language (»developed in China«, with a platform of Powerpoint operated by remote control). The piece has already played in more than two-dozen countries and in many languages. At the Schaubühne, this parliament will have three sessions: two in German, and one for an English-speaking public.

Talking to Bernat is a playful activity. He is very deft and constantly finding unusual positions on questions. I ask him what it is like to direct a piece with no actors, for example, and he corrects me. There are plenty of actors in his production: as many as can fill the Globe Theatre.

Roger Bernat: It’s not that I don’t have actors; it’s rather I don’t have spectators. And so the experience is bizarre, because I use actors who have never rehearsed the piece before. For this reason, the piece is more of a device than a play, because we don’t have time to rehearse it... The device finally allows us to imagine more political relations with others than what we normally experience in a bar or on the street or at home. We battle with the 150-200 other people who have come out that evening, and the group relations are linked to a political view of what it means to be together.

Joseph Pearson: Would you say that this exploration [quite Athenian in its set-up] is more of direct democracy or of representative democracy?

In fact, the piece initially derives from many of the paradoxes of direct democracy, and then moves towards many of the paradoxes of democratic assemblies. The piece works strongly on the pitfalls of democracy.

Could you tell us about some of these pitfalls?

Maybe it’s not in the order of the play, or its parts, but nevertheless one of the issues of the play is the public’s relationship to topics that are not directly related to the usual, daily, political agenda. These make the public confront questions that they have not so easily pinned down. If we are asked to talk about abortion or gay marriage, we know how we are supposed to reply if we are on the left or the right. But if we are asked to discuss issues that are not clearly linked to those agendas, then all of a sudden there is a demand on personal ethics, for something to emerge from the link between those ethics and politics. That is interesting, and many spectators come to me after the performance confessing that they are much more to the right than they normally thought. This often happens in the theatre, because the audience of the Schaubühne in Berlin, like the audience in Barcelona, is normally a left-wing, politically engaged audience. And nonetheless behind the Bible of the left, there are often political positions that are very questionable.

I am now thinking of the expression »confirmation bias«: that people have a predisposition to interpret information in a way that confirms preconceptions. This might even be cognitively programmed. Is your piece dedicated to attacking these foundations, to changing the minds of those who are already convinced?

If everything goes well in the piece, it becomes clear just how easily people change their minds if their usual points of reference [»repères«] are no longer clear. If there is no political party, no leader, to direct the way to march, it’s very easy to find oneself in a place that much more confusing than we are normally used to confronting.

And so Europeans are finding their political dimension by following populist leaders?

I would argue precisely the opposite. I would say that to be a political being, it is to accept being lost. If we do not want to accept the anguish of being lost – the anguish we feel before each issue that demands that we take a position and then act – and we think politics means being guided, then we lose a necessary human dimension. In order not to lose it, we need to be ready to take a position ourselves. The populism that we now see in Europe is a demonstration that people want to have a political dimension not permitted to them by traditional politics.

Populism is presented very negatively, even by the left-wing news media, as the »bête noire« of our times, one roused by social media such as Facebook. Even someone like myself – and I would describe myself very much to the left and democratic – finds himself even briefly entertaining anti-democratic feelings because of my fear of populism.

There is this anti-democratic impulse, but I think because traditional parties have not wanted to share political practice with the population. And when the population feels completely outside political processes, they begin to take on attitudes that fall outside traditional politics. But, happily, there is this return of populism, because it is an opportunity to re-politicize the population. Thankfully Trump won the American elections, because it provides an opportunity for the whole population to re-politicize.

But it is it necessary to tread through the quicksands of populism – Trump, Le Pen, Wilders – to emerge hopefully better educated politically? Or is there another way to achieve this?

Listen, we have had thirty-five years of representative politics without really a need to share politics with the population. This has brought us to the present situation. I’m not sure we need to pass via Trump, but I would not make Trump voters guilty for the situation where we are now. It is a way to reclaim the presence of a whole population that was erased from the political process of democratic states.

But here we are working on the presumption that we need to take account of everyone’s political voice. Let’s take a polemic position for a moment – that taken by Aristotle – that giving voice to the »mob« is precisely the problem. Following this line of argument: only certain people, who are educated in a particular way, should be allowed to make decisions for the mass. For this reason, we have elections for representatives who are more capable than we are. Ideally. Because, of course, we know that this is not the case –

No, it’s not.

Still this line of argument – taken by many people at least privately – articulates the dangers of a democracy decided by inexpert voices, by a public not capable of making important decisions, and that makes decisions perhaps on selfish grounds, or preconceptions: based on what I had this morning for breakfast, or because I don’t feel well today, or because this is good for me and my family but not for others. It takes a certain amount of idealism in the capacity of humanity to give the vote to the public, don’t you think?

It’s true that the public is not capable –

Voilà!

And the fact is that they repeat arguments that they read this morning in the newspaper or online. But to say they are not capable does not mean that will not be capable. It is necessary to say: yes, it is worth losing this battle to continue to fight. That’s to say: the modern project is one that fails each time, but it is an interesting project, the idea of permanent emancipation. The problem is that, for a few years now, this project has been downright forgotten, left to one side. Because – it’s funny – we no longer permit ourselves to fail. The economy of the last thirty years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has not given space to other discourses. There has been just one economic discourse, and others have been described as useless. It’s not been permitted to say that perhaps we would like to imagine other solutions. Perhaps they are bad ones, but ones worth trying.

Conversation in French, translated by Joseph Pearson.

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<![CDATA[FIND 17 </br>Creating Distance </br>Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s Tristesses]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/creating-distance-branne-ccile-vandalems-tristesses.html Mon, 27 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/creating-distance-branne-ccile-vandalems-tristesses.html by Joseph Pearson

»Tristesses« is a Belgian production from director Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s company Das Fräulein, coming to FIND17 at the Schaubühne. The piece is a laboratory on how the far-right feeds off sadness produced by the political system. It is an island world of intrigue, murder, but also comedy. It’s a story wrapped in a Danish flag that has much wider application.

If there were a theme to my conversation with the Belgian director, it would what an artist does to achieve an appropriate distance from her work. »Tristesses«’s microcosm is a Danish Island, to distance Vandalem from issues at home in Belgium. She uses the lens of a camera during rehearsals to give her distance, so she can later write the script. Humour and music create exterior views on dramatic situations. The function of all these dynamics becomes clearer the longer I speak with Vandalem, in advance of her Berlin premiere.

Joseph Pearson: What provoked you to write, direct, stage, and act in a production about the far-right?

Anne-Cécile Vandalem: At first, I was not thinking about creating a piece about the far-right, but rather one about how sadness creates powerlessness, how it makes people incapable of action. A way into this subject was Gilles Deleuze’s writings on Spinoza, in which he addresses the diminution of the power of acting. What is sadness? Someone or something appears, has power over your life, and this person or situation doesn’t correspond with your desires and blocks you. This is sadness. Hate, meanwhile, is everything you will start to do to erase or eliminate this person. And so, regarding how this powerlessness is imposed by sadness, I was interested in treating questions regarding the family, or couples, in intimate situations. But I wondered whether it could be applied as well to society. I was concerned with the position of right-wing parties in Belgium, the Flemish Block [Vlaams Blok] which rebranded itself to appear more acceptable to voters. So now people from the extreme- right enter government, simply by changing their name? I’ve observed this with the far-right all around Europe, and by the far-right I do not mean the traditional far-right but rather populist parties. I’ve observed how – in Belgium, France and elsewhere in Europe, even in countries that differ greatly from one another – the whole political machine is one built of sadness. The sadness was not produced by the far-right, but the new populist parties use it to increase their power.

Why did you choose Denmark then, and more specifically an island in that country, as the location for your play?

I need distance to write, to take a step back from my national situation, dominated by the Walloon-Flemish separatist question. I chose an island in Denmark as the location for this laboratory, originally because of one detail: that the country is apparently the happiest place on earth. Denmark, incidentally, has its own far-right tradition, which is old and accepted, part of the landscape, but the world I create on the island is not specifically national. Instead, on the island, I mix elements that I observed in Denmark, France, Greece, and elsewhere. On it, there is an abattoir that closed, for political reasons – because the port moved elsewhere on the island, and local politics favour tourism over this kind of industry – and so the former infrastructure is broken down. The manipulation of the far-right to recuperate this former economic activity of the island becomes a vehicle for conflicts.

Your plays are known for the humour. Is that hard to balance against the serious themes of populism and hatred?

My performances are preoccupied with death, and people always die in them. And so I need comedy. Laughter creates a space through which we can enter the drama. It comes from the conviction, my conviction, that we are all set up for failure, that we are not made for winning. And in this failure – of strategies to gain power – there is also a desire to escape, to create at the same time comic situations. The funniest characters are those who are trying to gain control over others. On the one hand, there is the desire to get out of these situations of failure. On the other, there is the conviction that we don’t have the option. This bind creates tension and anguish, and it provokes me to begin to write.

Could you tell us how you work with the actors? And what it is like both playing an acting role and being a director?

When I began this project in 2014, I gathered perhaps fifteen actors – most of them I had already worked with, or I wanted to work with – for two weeks. Together, we worked through five established large chapters in the play over five days. Each day was a chapter, a large improvisation, filmed by two camera operators and accompanied by musicians. In a large room, we created a village – one a little reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s »Dogville«. We created boundaries, which we drew on the floor, with six or seven houses. We discovered the island together, and at first we all created a home life, and then there is a murder. These initial improvisations were all recorded by the camera. One camera only filmed close-ups. Two musicians meanwhile created a certain ambience. We recorded the results, which by the end of the week were a grand improvisation. I then had a large amount of material with which I could begin to write. I came back eventually with a play, and we started rehearsing. The play also includes the shooting of a live film, the making of a movie. You also asked about how I include myself as an actor: when I act in my plays, I have someone playing my role until almost the end, and then I take over the role, to give myself some distance.

You mentioned briefly the presence of musicians during the rehearsals. How does music work in your production?

Music is, for me, the way I write and direct. First and foremost, I am an actor, and acting is a kind of musical language. I am talking here about rhythm and tempo, which are the two bases with which I am always working. When I am writing too, I always need music to be playing. I ask my composer to give me the music I need to write. Writing also has a rhythm. I discovered in »Tristesses« that music influences the way you look at something, it can influence the situation and the actors, how we work. For example, if I had a scene where I felt that there was too little or too much tension, or not enough rhythm, or where the characters were too uniform, I would use music to provoke them, to change how the scene was played. In this way, music was very functional.

Finally, another topic you brought up is your preoccupation with death. Could you expand how this relates to »Tristesses«?

Yes, it is very important in the piece. It’s always there, it’s physically always there. The three musicians are dead people, phantoms, always present. There is something uncanny and funny about them, but also very powerful. I wanted to talk about the power of death. This relates to jihadism, how young people use death as a statement to reject their powerlessness because as political people they have been forgotten. It relates just as much to other young people who take up arms to cause a massacre in a school. It is about armed struggle. This was a concern I wanted to be more present in the production, but you have to understand that the play developed during the recent series of attacks in France and Belgium, and I wanted to distance myself from those. I decided not to be as explicit about how death acts as a kind of divine power. We are powerful because we know we will die. This is, in fact, the subject of a new production I am developing, which is about immortality. Death is powerful. It’s a political tool. And »Tristesses« is about death and winning elections. It is Death, in fact, that wins the far-right its election.

Conversation in French and English. Translations by Joseph Pearson.

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<![CDATA[FIND 17</br>What’s Gone Wrong in America? A Conversation with Romeo Castellucci.]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/whats-gone-wrong-in-america-a-conversation-with-romeo-castellucci.html Mon, 27 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/whats-gone-wrong-in-america-a-conversation-with-romeo-castellucci.html by Joseph Pearson

Perhaps you are dismayed, and terrified, by the new American president, and dwell on the uncertainties ahead. How will European security fare between Putin and Trump? How will our warming planet survive? What challenges will Muslims face? What will the poor in America do, who lose their thin social net? Or perhaps (a more productive approach, rather than guessing what comes next) one should ask the historical question: how did American democracy get to this awful state?

Romeo Castellucci is one of Europe’s best-known directors, a firebrand who disrupts the audience and provokes uneasy reactions. In Castellucci’s production for FIND17, »Democracy in America«, he looks at the genealogy of American political life, by turning to the best-known early European commentator for guidance: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). Indeed, Castellucci’s piece is named for de Tocqueville’s chief opus and is set loosely in the Frenchman’s period. Of the actual performance, Castellucci does not wish to give away too much. Those familiar with the director’s oeuvre will be unsurprised that there will be a narrative aspect, but also one that is abstract.

Speaking from his home in Emilia-Romagna, Castellucci contrasts what he argues are two distinct democratic models: the European, which looked to the Ancient Athenians as an influence, and the American in the age of de Tocqueville.

»In Europe, democracy grew out of the Athenian experience, that of Pericles, even though it never fully imitated it, and despite the fact that this was a society in which there were slaves, and where women were suppressed. The curious thing is that Greek democracy came about in a moment when aesthetics reached their apex. Democracy grew in a place and time when tragedy was the maximum expressive form, in a moment when the Parthenon was built, and there was a great weight put on the aesthetic, spiritual development through beauty. All this did not exist in America. There was only a pragmatism, and its naive aspect often stressed by de Tocqueville«.

Meanwhile American exceptionalism, he argues, has religious roots. Puritanism – and Calvinist notions of predestination and the Elect – can be used to explain some salient aspects of American life: its resistance to social assistance, the easy acceptance of accumulation in mass capitalism, a history of manifest destiny, or the exportation of a culturally-specific version of freedom. Castellucci explains: »Even today, America is the only Western society where the President needs to swear on the Bible. While in Europe, democracies liberated themselves from God, from the Church – we only need to think of the French Revolution – in America it was the opposite. Looking to the Old Testament, the Puritans applied the law of Moses to construct the new state. They were convinced that they were called on to create a new Israel. They felt legitimised in massacring the indigenous population because their God wished it. This conception can be called a jump into the darkness. This darkness – a heart of darkness – is still very characteristic of America today. I became very interested in the Puritans, and so my piece became about them«.

Our conversation returns to the question of tragedy, and Castellucci argues that Greek tragedy’s conflicts were a laboratory not only for elevating the spirit but also for exploring issues in political life.

»Greek tragedy is an expressive form created from politics and often resolves in a tribunal; we only need to think of the Oresteia. The scene of the Furies is a trial scene. Through these trials, human rights and duties are articulated; they become loftier, nobler. Tragedy is material from which civil rights are born. But they are born out of a conflictual context, in which people consider the possibility of evil. Tragedy is not only theatre, but it is also the location where the city unites, meets. The theory of man that tragedy invents is the basis of Greek democracy. American democracy, as described by de Tocqueville, does not have anything to do with this«.

I comment that what I find compelling about the relationship between Greek democracy and tragedy is the political warning that is imparted. Many of those staples of American political and economic life, exalted as positive ambitions in the Age of Trump – rampant individualism and consumption, overweening pride and power-seeking, embarrassing wealth – are the kind of foibles subject to reversals, and Nemesis, in Greek drama.

Castellucci replies, »The ›Theory of Man‹ suggested by tragedy is that it is dangerous to go too high; hubris is dangerous. In America, the difference is that the notion of predestination is very strong because it’s an act of God. There is the Man of Providence. There is a messianic aspect to the Presidential position. This is actually quite a primitive aspect of the society. Because individualism, fortune, money, and property are all exalted, and there is no room for charity«.

I reply, »Herodotus wrote, it’s the ›great buildings and tall trees that get struck by lightning‹. That ›lesson‹ seems to have been lost on American capitalism«.

»Yes, the understanding has been exactly the opposite«, replies Castellucci.

»How then does tragedy play in the Age of Trump? Does it function, but without the reversal, without the traditional consequences?«

»We are waiting now for the consequences. Perhaps, prophetically, the foundations for an American tragedy are already being laid. If we take into account the abyss of values, on which the society is based: this is material for tragedy«, he replies.

I then ask about cross-pollination. America has not been in a bubble and many ideas of American democracy emerged from the French Enlightenment. Today, many European populisms resemble their American cousins. American capitalism has spread across the globe.

Castellucci says: »We live today in an epoch where the differences across the Atlantic are perhaps more subtle ideologically. I do not want this to be a performance of condemnation. That’s too easy; it’s too easy to be correct«. To this, he adds that the »darkness«, which haunts American life – even, perhaps, in a Lacanian sense, as something terrifying behind the positive self-presentation of American democratic institutions – has nonetheless resulted in creative vigour.

»De Tocqueville – and here he was mistaken – thought that literature, philosophy, painting, art could never be born in America. Here he was wrong. Walt Whitman and Herman Melville soon proved that. They were artists who examined what American democracy rejected: the negative, dark part of it. The apparent absence of shadows in American democracy is the thing that is troubling. De Tocqueville managed to see, in a prophetic way, this heart of darkness, that has been essential to American democracy, and whose consequences we see today«.

Castellucci tells me, »I think art in America became incredibly profound, and certainly more potent than that in Europe, especially in the post-war period, the period in which Duchamp arrived in America. Who better than Andy Warhol to express the abyss that hides in the superficial? Or Mark Rothko, who using a very different language, expresses a common point? American art has become more important than European art because it is necessary, because it grapples with this heart of darkness. It responds to the brutality of the American conception of life. But also, I would say, more than anything else, it confronts the void that lies behind the superficially uncomplicated vision that American democracy expresses«.

Conversation in Italian, conversation edited and translations by Joseph Pearson

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<![CDATA[FIND 17 </br> Theatre that Lies to Tell the Truth (with an appearance by Pablo Escobar): Mapa Teatro’s »Los Incontados«]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-2017-br-theatre-that-lies-to-tell-the-truth-with-an-appearance-by-pablo-escobar-mapa-teatros-los-incontados.html Thu, 23 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-2017-br-theatre-that-lies-to-tell-the-truth-with-an-appearance-by-pablo-escobar-mapa-teatros-los-incontados.html by Joseph Pearson

Some theatres are located behind fences in genteel neighbourhoods, but Mapa is located in the thick of Bogota’s disorienting centre, in touch with the pressing problems of a country emerging from decades of drug violence after a peace deal with Colombia’s largest revolutionary force, the FARC.

As I write this preview, I am visiting Colombia. I am confronted by the bewildering high-altitude weather – torrential rain then bright sunshine – as my taxi zooms south into the centre. I am faced with the centre’s contrasting rush of tawdry vendors, panhandlers, and then men in pressed suits emerging from government meetings, as I exit my taxi. The architecture is just as varied: the Colombian National Museum, a former panopticon prison, is dwarfed by the fifty-story Torre Colpatria with its facade of concrete. All this is a change from the wealthy and sanitised northern neighbourhood, Chico, where I am staying, where the police position themselves in front of expensive hair salons and sushi restaurants. I step around bodies of the homeless stretched out on the sidewalk as I approach a massive portal, above which is written »Mapa Teatro«.

The door opens. Inside is a crumbling but palatial 19th-century hotel converted into an arts space by Mapa in 2000, originally for a site-specific performance of »Richard III«. Up the winding stairwell, windows look down to an interior courtyard adorned with arcades. There, the members of Mapa are cranking enormous wooden machines they have constructed, that look like apparatus out of a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci.

Heidi Abderhalden, who co-founded Mapa with her brother Rolf, describes with a smile the mysterious machines. They are Brechtian, even capable of creating a distancing effect! I imagine it depends on how long you crank them.

The Abderhaldens are a delightful combination of intellectual, curious and relaxed. They utterly charm me. Upstairs, we sit in an airy room with enormous windows and hardwood floors where they describe their background and the new production they will bring to the FIND festival at the Schaubühne in Berlin this April.

They grew up in Colombia in a Swiss family. »We were educated in French, and marked by a vision and culture that was very European«, Heidi tells me, »After school, we both left to Paris to study at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq«.

In Paris’s eighties theatre milieu, they met director Simon McBurney and William Kentridge, who were classmates. Mapa was created in Paris in 1984. »It was a remarkable place of group creation, very interdisciplinary«, they tell me. It was also rich with influences. Rolf visited Samuel Beckett in September 1989, a few months before his death (Mapa’s production, »De Mortibus: requiem for Samuel Beckett« was later produced in 1990). In his last months, Beckett was no longer normally receiving visitors. He was, however, interested in Colombian politics. Rolf went to the seniors’ home in the 13th arrondissement, to the last room Beckett occupied, where he sat down next to the ageing playwright who took his hand and said, »Things aren’t going very well in Colombia, are they?«

No, they were not. That is one reason why the Abderhaldens went back to their country. As Heidi tells me, »We realised that something different was happening in Colombia, that made us ask the question: what kind of production does this place demand? We were touched by the country’s politics. We arrived at the moment of the biggest increase in narco-traffic, and the wars between the cartels and the state, and we decided immediately we needed to stay here«.

Heidi continues, »It was a moment that we needed to decide where we would work. We were a little divided. We were autonomous before creating Mapa, me specialising in the Feldenkrais method [of somatic education] and Rolf with his graduate work in visual arts. Nonetheless, we knew we wanted to work together. And we were tired of living in Europe after 12 years«.

Rolf continues, »We realised we were connected in Colombia, with friends, artists, the family, the country. We felt immediately incorporated, and received a reception that was fantastic«.

They brought with them a form of theatre that, Rolf tells me, simply didn’t exist before in Colombia.

»We work as a laboratory for research rather than as a traditional theatre«, Heidi explains, »At first, we worked in many different locations – roaming Bogota like nomads for 15 years – they were site specific pieces, in ruins, in neighbourhoods that were disaffected, heterotopic, marginal, and certainly not areas that were consecrated to theatre«.

Rolf expands, »To give you some examples, we directed a production of Heiner Müller's ›Horacio‹ [1993] in La Picota central penitentiary in Bogota. The prison inmates were our actors – many young people who were recruited by narco-traffic, and by guerilla movements. Another production, ›Witness to the Ruins‹ [2001-5] was long-term, with five years spent in an impoverished neighbourhood, El Cartucho, that was to be demolished. It was a very particular site – of drug and arms sales. This project has guided, since the 2000s, our relation to the city of Bogota. These were foundational experiences in a tradition that was not extensive here: the laboratory, of live arts, with an ethical and artistic position, which came from our artistic practice«.

Heidi goes on to explain that before they arrive in Berlin (March 2017), they have invited thinkers, mostly from Latin America, to take part in a platform called »Experimenta Sur«, to reflect on questions regarding the consumption of memory and forgetting.

»We live in a country that is trying to revindicate memory after 50 years of conflict. We want to problematise memory and its connection to forgetting. Both are necessary. What are the important questions? We invite artists who work on this, but also thinkers, who reflect on the politics of memory, especially on the question of museums, memory processes, and the archive. The Goethe Institute has been instrumental in sponsoring twenty Latin American thinkers and artists to come to us for two weeks. It’s wonderful, this alliance with Germany, because we don’t have that kind of financial support in Colombia«.

Mapa will bring this international background, laboratory practice, engagement, and particular Colombian experience to the piece, »Los Incontados«, which is invited to the FIND festival. The piece is a triptych about violence in Colombia over the last 52 years. »It is that many years because it is also our story. It’s the age I am now«, Heidi tells me. The title comes from a little-known poem by Paul Celan, »Erhört«, in which he refers to what is »untold« or »countless«. »Incontado« in Spanish gains this double meaning (and it is suggested too by the German »ungezählt«).

To focalise this complicated and expansive narrative of violence, Mapa has used one trope, which that of the celebration, be it Catholic feasts or local fêtes.

»We are interested in celebrations, the fiesta of the living, and of violence in the context of the massacre – we look at this threshold between celebration and death. The celebration’s stage becomes a device to examine attack, death, kidnapping, military assault and armed confrontation. It also provides dramatic possibilities that can be exploited, because it is traversed by pure theatricality. ›La Fiesta‹ is also a theatre of operation, to use the military term, incorporating techniques such as ritualisation, mimesis, camouflage, transvestism, simulation, pure play, or masked play«.

The word »triptych« has been chosen rather than »trilogy« because of the iconic importance of religious figurations. And what are the three parts? Mapa presents two twenty-minute extracts from previous productions (each originally an hour long) for the first two panels of the triptych. The third part has not yet been produced in its entirety. Only this twenty-minute extract of the third panel currently exists. Indeed, the final section gives room for possibility; it opens up the piece to future work.

»Could you tell us more about one of the panels, just to give us a taste?» I ask.

And Heidi and Rolf begin to tell me about the second part of the triptych, »Discurso de un hombre decente (Discourse of a decent man)» which is about the 80-year old Danilo Jiménez, a musician who regularly performed for Pablo Escobar, Medellin’s infamous drug lord, or Narco, whose cocaine trade transfigured Colombia political life and plunged his country into unparalleled violence. Mapa exploits what they call the »eccentric theatricality« of his political ambitions and the violence of drug trafficking.

»Pablo Escobar wrote a speech on his presidential ambitions, where he spoke about his world vision in relation to the economy, which divided the world into the powerful and the exploited, between consumers and producers, and he wanted to invert that power relation using drug-trafficking. Escobar said: I will legalise drugs, cocaine, and I will export, and we will live by these legal exports, which grow like flowers naturally in our country. It was a new sensibility«, Rolf tells me.

»All the words are his, but the discussion we present is fictitious, completely false. Nonetheless, it is also completely faithful to Pablo Escobar’s declarations. And we decided to treat these declarations from the perspective of a witness, and we chose a musician we found, Danilo Jiménez, who worked for Escobar at his extravagant parties, at his celebrations in the 1980s with his musical group La Banda Marco Fidel Suárez. In the end, he suffered in a violent attack in a public space in Medellin, with his whole orchestra playing«.

»We see in the triptych a presence of this musician. For us it was necessary that we return to this question: what we can say, what we cannot say, what should be exposed, not exposed? What of the presence of the witness, who took part in the scene as if taking part in a fiction? What was his agreement to take part in this fiction, without losing his status as a witness? How can he prevent himself from becoming a character, not lose his quality as witness?«

I start to understand better how their laboratory mixes genres, and I ask, »What you do then is not documentary theatre – but rather docufiction?«

»It is definitely not documentary theatre. There is a lot of fiction in our documentaries, but we prefer the term ethnofiction«.

Here they refer to the term coined by Jean Rouch (1917-2004), whose films were ethnographical in character, based in small communities where residents played their own roles, although the plots were fictitious. One can imagine how this concept can then be exported to experimental theatre. And perhaps, some narratives that are fictitious – but based on historical documents – are better able to transmit the feeling of a past reality than those which is strictly documentary.

The Abderhaldens conclude, one speaking with the other, »Ethnofiction is the permanent friction between what is real and fiction. It is also game: it involves a community that constructs their collective capacity for game. It’s to say that documentary theatre was too restrictive. With Escobar, we don’t create a real transcription; instead, we create a document that is traversed by the issues of fiction.«

Interview originally in French, translations by Joseph Pearson

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<![CDATA[FIND 17 </br>Home Cooking and Intimacy: Richard Nelson’s »The Gabriels«]]> http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-brhome-cooking-and-intimacy-richard-nelsons-the-gabriels.html Tue, 21 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 http://www.schaubuehne.de/blog/find-17-brhome-cooking-and-intimacy-richard-nelsons-the-gabriels.html by Joseph Pearson

When the quartet, »The Apple Family Plays«, came to the FIND festival from New York in 2015, the question was asked: how will plays set in a rural American community, Rhinebeck, two hours north of New York City, speak to a German audience? Will Germans care about the intricacies of New York State politics? Will they connect to the food prepared, to the conversational vernacular? How will all this translate with German surtitles?

Director Richard Nelson’s plays were very successful in Germany, and therein lies a little puzzle. As Nelson tells me in conversation, »One of the lessons I learned coming to Berlin was that the more specific one is – the more actual in time and place and detail – the more universal the play can become. That’s an interesting lesson. This small little village of only a few streets started to become something much bigger, although it is contained in a small place«.

The invitation was extended – by both by the Schaubühne’s FIND 2017 and Hamburg’s Theater der Welt festivals – for Nelson to return. He brings with him »The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family«. While the »Apples« charted a Rhinebeck family in a living room over four years of elections and national memorials, »The Gabriels« charts a Rhinebeck family in a kitchen over the course of the 2016 presidential election campaign. »The Gabriels« is composed of three parts – »Hungry«, »What Did You Expect?«, and »Women of a Certain Age« – with a cumulative effect that makes spectators glad they booked to see all of them.

Who are the Gabriels? They are descendants of working-class Austrian immigrants. The grandfather worked as a garage mechanic; the grandmother was a maid on the Astor estate. But it was a family that, Nelson tells me, became very cultured and educated, involved in music and literature. The plays are dominated by women. By the final part, almost all the characters are middle-aged women, with one in her eighties (»It’s wonderful, I think, to show there are wonderful actresses out there who because of their age have worked less than they should«, Nelson adds). These (almost Chekhovian) characters are locals from the town of Rhinebeck. Unlike the Apples, who didn’t grow up in Rhinebeck and moved there, the resilient Gabriels face the pressures of gentrification as their town becomes popular with weekenders from New York City (buying country homes and driving up local prices). As Nelson explains, while the Apples were »in search of a home, the people in these pieces were born here, and are being pushed out. Here, it’s about the loss of a home«. This story of displacement will speak emotionally to those touched by the debate in Berlin around neighbourhood change and gentrification in, say, Kreuzberg or Neukölln.

These comparisons bring me back to the puzzle posed at the beginning of this preview. Why is it that the plays work better cross-culturally, with large audiences, the more specific (Rhinebeck) cultural detail is provided? How does one then arrive at something that Nelson calls »universal« or »human«? These are, of course, categories that meet resistance within sections of the German theatre scene seasoned by a suspicion of universalism, and also among those that reject what they call the conceit of naturalism or hyperrealism (although Nelson prefers to call the technique in his work »verisimilitude«).

Nelson tells me, »We have some experience with these plays in very different cultures, in Perth and Hong Kong for example. Let me tell you, in Hong Kong, a third to a half of the audience was reading along with Mandarin supertitles. So, you tell me. Clearly, the familial situations are universal. Families are not that dissimilar in terms of their basic dynamics, but I think something else is going on«.

»When I talked to Tobias Veit [of the Schaubühne direction] – he was the great instigator of bringing the ›Apples‹ over – he argued specifically that he felt that there was an audience for issues and places involving liberal characters [»liberal« in the American sense of the word, meaning social-democratic]. In these plays, we see characters who grew up with liberal beliefs and voted Democrat... liberal people who are not wealthy, who created and believed in a world with a certain kind of justice, with a certain kind of right and wrong. They have watched the world change a great deal, and are now feeling that perhaps their leaders are not quite so focused on them. Western Australia is just about to have an election. Hong Kong in the midst of a very big election. Germany is about to have an election. England lives under the umbrella of what happened with Brexit, and across the border France is having an election. The Netherlands are about to have a huge election [at time of interview]. In all of these places, the concerns of my characters seem to be alive. How that happened is very interesting«.

I ask, »Speaking of elections, the last part of the trilogy, »Women of a Certain Age«, premiered in New York on election night, 8 November 2016. After that performance the actors watched the faces of the New York Public Theatre’s audience fall, as Trump’s victory became clear. How are »The Gabriels« interpreted differently pre- and post- Trump?«

Nelson nods, »What has happened is that the plays have deepened. If Hillary had won, the plays would have been seen as cautionary tales: let’s not celebrate too much. Be careful, vigilant. But since Trump won, it’s a much darker tale, in which one feels more and more alienated. Where is my voice? There’s one line in all three plays: ›what about us?‹ Given the situation, the election, that line just resonates – in a much darker place, an impotent place. The plays touch that«.

»Does that mean, then, that America is a broken place? That these plays are about broken people in the age of Trump? Do ›The Gabriels‹ mourn an America that was better and is now gone?«

Nelson replies with an emphatic »No«. He says, »The excitement about these plays is the sense of resilience of these people. More than one person has thanked me, saying that all we hear about America is a certain kind of story: about scared, frightened, confused people. But they are questioning people, there is a voice that is resilient, and a hope behind it. That is at the heart of these plays. It’s so obvious that people feel that something has gone wrong: an incredible statistic came up two weeks ago, that eight of the world’s richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. In the history of the earth, there has been nothing like that. How did we get there is a reasonable question«.

»I want to return to the word »human«, which we have used a number of times in our conversation. And I wonder what this category means to you«, I ask the director.

Nelson replies, »I begin very specifically and concretely: I am a playwright, and I work in the theatre. And I’ve said many times, theatre is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. As an artist, the only thing I have to work with is the whole human being. So I begin there. This is my path; this is what I have. It’s not a question of ›what is human‹; it’s what I’m given, the tools I have, the individuals that I work with and am trying to create. I tell my actors at the beginning of rehearsal, always, I say: the only ambition we have is to be put people on stage who are as confused, complex, deep, ambiguous, as any one person in the audience. And that we will always fail. But that’s our ambition. When you have that as the centre of your work, it’s not a question of having to justify what it is. It is working with what you have«.

Nelson’s plays are stripped down, with minimal costume choices that begin with the actors’ own wardrobes, the set is almost bare and everything on it is used. Yet, a great deal of technical sophistication has gone into the appearance of simplicity, be it in the lighting – the stage is lit as if for a dance piece – or audio. The characters often speak with their backs to the audience, in conversational tones, thanks to an innovative series of microphones placed over the set, with only delicate amplification. Together, these subtle gestures help create the impression we are peeking into a world, and that creates intimacy and empathy. As Nelson puts it, »we are human beings in front of human beings, together, live, and in the dark, at the same time in the same place«.

One of the reasons »The Gabriels« promise to be so intimate is that these plays are set in a kitchen where food is prepared. Nelson tells me, »The only real plot of each play is a meal is being made from scratch. The play ends when it is ready. Why? There are a number of reasons and three that are specific. The first is so obvious that I had never thought about it: human beings are the only animals that cook. Therefore, cooking is one of the things that makes us human. What better way to focus on the human being and its complexity but to focus on one of the things that defines us as human. Secondly, I think the plays are about the dignity of these people. In essence, these plays are ›work plays‹. We are watching people work: things are physically being made, there is dignity of work. Finally, maybe for you too when you were growing up things were spoken in the kitchen in certain ways, when preparing food, differently than elsewhere. The kitchen allows for a certain kind of conversation. The kitchen is a way into that conversation«.

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