»LOVE« Stripped Down
Alexander Zeldin at FIND 2021
»LOVE« Stripped Down
Alexander Zeldin at FIND 2021
by Joseph Pearson
30. September 2021
In the past months, perhaps you have overheard:
»I have a friend looking for an apartment.«
»Do you know of anything becoming available?«
»How much can she spend? What neighbourhood?«
Maybe you have heard:
»I have a friend losing his apartment.«
»They can’t afford to stay in the same Kiez.«
»We should have bought a decade ago.«
»The neighbourhood isn’t the same now that everything is so expensive.«
And perhaps you have wondered:
»Whatever happened to the people who lived downstairs?«
»Where are they living now?«
and »Where did that man begging in front of the U-Bahn use to live?«
Housing is the eternal topic of exchange in capital cities – London, New York, Berlin – where it is scarce. Shelter is the conversation of any location where it is considered a commodity and not a right. The subject dominated too the recent German election, with the successful referendum in Berlin on the transfer of apartments from private (Deutsche Wohnen and co.) into public hands.
Alexander Zeldin’s »LOVE« comes to Berlin from London at this topical moment, to examine housing from the perspective of a society’s most vulnerable. The play explores individuals’ experiences in a shared space: a temporary housing shelter.
Dean and Emma, with their two children, find themselves in a single room, with a shared bathroom with a middle-aged man and his ailing mother, and two refugees, from Syria and Sudan. Each is confronted with scarcity (of housing, of private space) and authoritarianism (of a Kafka-esque benefits system they must negotiate to improve their lives). Zeldin paints their realities, ones that resonate too with the situation in Berlin, using an idiom of »stripped-down« naturalism.
Homeless in London, Homeless in Berlin
I admit that when I heard that a play about homelessness in Britain was coming to Berlin, my reaction was to point across the Channel, and distance myself from the problem:
»Well, what do you expect from the rampant neoliberalism of that post-Thatcherite island? A Britain where money is king?« Margaret Thatcher, after all, famously said in 1987: »There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first«. I, for one, am in the habit of thinking of social exclusion as being as British as Earl Grey, lemon drizzle cake, and corgis.
A little research on the situation in Berlin, however, quickly corrects any impulse to confine the play’s commentary to one place.
What is the situation in the UK, the context in which this play unfolds? Government support for temporary housing was capped in the recession that followed the 2008 market collapse, precisely at a time when rents began to skyrocket, and many people could no longer afford their homes. »LOVE« premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2016 and the picture has only become grimmer in the post-Brexit country facing the pandemic.
Since the premiere, rents have continued to increase, by 45% in the last five years. Meanwhile, there has been an 88% increase of single people claiming social security payments since March 2020. Families too suffered during the pandemic, with 60 000 households becoming homeless last winter. Homelessness increased almost 10% during the pandemic despite an evictions ban.
Looking at the total numbers, of those who have fallen through the cracks into homelessness, is disheartening: 300 000 in England are now either in temporary housing or sleeping rough. According to the Trust for London, a poverty and inequality NGO, 52 000 families are in temporary housing in the British capital alone. The chief executive of the charity Shelter recently warned, »Despite the clear danger that homelessness will rise, the government remains focused on expensive homeownership schemes, rather than anything resembling truly affordable housing. If the government wants this country to recover quickly from the pandemic, investing in a new generation of secure social homes is an absolute must«.
One in 200 are homeless in England. But if one expects that post-Thatcherite Britain to be worse than Germany, one should look first at the 2019 numbers published by the BAG Wohnungslosenhilfe e.V. According to them, the number of homeless is even higher in this country: 678 000, or 1,6 per 200.
While there are many charities in Berlin helping those sleeping in the streets in Berlin, especially in the winter months when there are deaths from cold, the availability of emergency housing is in crisis. The situation is made worse by the well-known pressure on Berlin’s housing sector due to lack of availability and rising rents. In 2018, 37 000 lived in emergency shelters in Berlin. 21% of them have had to remain in such institutions for up to two years before finding affordable solutions. Temporary housing in the German capital––the head of Caritas in Berlin, Ulrike Kosta, says––means »lack of space, lack of money, and in some cases the lack of minimum standards of care, and something urgently needs to be done«.
Neoliberal Britain is not such a distant island after all.
As spectators will realise, »LOVE« confronts an audience, well-heeled enough to pay for their seats, not in a didactic or heavy-handed way, but rather with the quietness of ordinary activities, the minute naturalism of the everyday, to elicit compassion and empathy, perhaps even love. Mixed with pity is also terror; the family moving into the single room, after all, speaks with middle-class accents (something perhaps not immediately noticeable to a German public).
The Schaubühne dramaturge, Nils Haarmann, tells me about the production from the theatre’s perspective: what attracted the Schaubühne to the play’s particular voice, why it was invited to FIND, and the future collaboration already planned with Zeldin.
»What comes first to mind when you think of Zeldin’s play?« I ask him.
He laughs, »There is a lot of sitting. Micromovements. People cooking tea. He gives everyday activities the duration of everyday life. And somehow he makes them absolutely fascinating for the audience«.
»But it’s not kitchen-sink naturalism – «
»A temporary kitchen sink! Zeldin distinguishes himself from this tradition by stripping down naturalism to its bleak bottom. The expected dramatic conventions of dialogues ending with clever punchlines, a heightened dramatic pace, or dramaturgical plot twists, are replaced by long awkward silences. But it is never banal or boring, it has an over-arching form, and it smashes many conventions of theatre«.
»It smashes too the fourth wall, by all accounts – «
»Yes, he really pushes it forward. Even the lighting grid of the stage extends very far over the spectators. The audience is sold seats right on stage. Actors sit among the audience, but only address the other characters. We are drawn into their world but there is also a feeling of voyeurism that remains, as if you were a camera. You are sitting in their world, but you are also separate. It is a delicate relationship, one that invites us to observe, and ultimately to empathise«.
»It strikes me as the opposite of the Brechtian tradition, apart from its social engagement«, I suggest.
»It’s a theatre that uses mimesis to the extreme. It doesn’t use microphones, there is no music, nothing is stylised. If a light goes off on stage, it’s because an actor has touched the switch. It also situates itself in everyday places, those used by socially-marginalised groups. In another play, »Faith, Hope and Charity«, it’s a community choir space. Zeldin writes the scripts himself, and I sometimes compare what he is doing to Maxim Gorky, and his »The Lower Depths«. In a way, he is catching up with Gorky and Stanislavski, in a version that works for our times«.
»How does he engage with actors?«
»He began by working with amateur theatre in community centres, in Birmingham at first. In »LOVE«, some of his actors are on stage for the first time, while others are well-known professionals. It’s an intriguing mix. He’s brilliant at creating ambiguity on stage between the professional and non-professional actors, between characters that are devised based on lived experience, and those who follow borrowed examples. It’s a permeable theatre: Alex goes to temporary housing centres, he speaks to these people, and then he invites them into the theatre. He is also well-known for sending his actors out into public spaces, in character––to a bakery, or a jobcentre––to refine their roles«.
»This is Zeldin’s first foray into German theatre«.
»Correct«, says Nils, »LOVE« is his German debut. But it won’t be his last time here. »LOVE« is the second play in a trilogy on marginalisation called »The Inequalities«, the first being »Beyond Caring«, and the final one »Faith, Hope and Charity«, which I mentioned before. In the Spring, he will direct the Schaubühne’s ensemble in a German-language version of »Beyond Caring«, set in a meat-packing plant. It’s the workday of people who live in real precarity. All the actors are cleaners, based on real cleaners in the plant. They will be invited into the theatre to work with us. They will lead«.
von Alexander Zeldin
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