The Missing Link in Marius von Mayenburg’s »The Apes«
by Joseph Pearson
20 February 2020
It’s going to be an unusual visit to the Schaubühne’s practice stage, I realise, as soon as I walk into Marius von Mayenburg’s rehearsal of »The Apes«, which will open the 2020 FIND festival. For one thing, Robert Beyer is crouched in a simian position on a patio table. Apparently, the day before the actors partook in an ape-movement class. That would explain their ostentatious climbing and leaping, fingers trailing the ground, swaying side to side. Jenny König sighs, »After the class with the movement coach, I ached all over playing Orlando« (I gleefully imagine the Virginia Woolf production visited by an unexpected transformation). Here, Mark Waschke and Genija Rykova scamper over rocks to fetch what appears to be chocolate pudding hidden in a barbeque. A large mirror reflects the brewing atavism.
A sculpture hangs over the set: is it a planet? An island of garbage collected in the ocean? The actors rage under it wildly, seemingly unthreatened by the cloud of debris.
»The set was Sébastien Dupouey’s immediate reaction to the text«, von Mayenburg tells me. »We've already given numerous names to the object, but none seem to stick. Which is a good thing, I believe. It's been a cloud, a spaceship, a submarine, an egg, a capsule and an eye. It has a dark and threatening side and at the same time a sense of irony and humour. To me it represents the world of the play.«
Meanwhile, the actors will wear full-body wigs, so the body is seen underneath. The hair appears to come out of the skin, like fur. These are people in transition.
»How did you come to this idea of people becoming apes?«, I ask von Mayenburg.
He replies: »In fact, the idea first came to me a long time ago. Before I put on my first piece of theatre, I wrote a scenario of a family in which the wife gives birth to an ape. I was intrigued by the confrontation between nature and notions of civilisation in the family. I didn’t publish this play for several reasons and have only come back to the idea now, in the context of the world feeling like it is on the verge of disaster. Something else happened recently, which was that I put on a show in Frankfurt where we had a short scene with an ape. During a video test with two actors in costumes, we ended up shooting for 45 minutes because a strong feeling of tranquillity filled the room while we improvised. It was entrancing and felt wrong to interrupt. The actors later told us that there was something therapeutic about playing an animal. It does something to your mind and body to be a monkey, to think like an ape. There’s freedom. Revisiting the idea of an ape in seemingly civilised surroundings, I decided that becoming an ape should be a decision and not an accident. Someone needs to say: let’s go back, turn evolution around, return to a state when the human being was still a part of nature. On the one hand, we always are, we can’t escape it. On the other, we are at war with nature and nature is striking back when humankind thought they had won the battle. My characters are longing for a situation when humankind is still at peace with nature.«
I tell von Mayeburg, »I was recently at the South Tyrol Archaeology Museum in Bolzano and visited Ötzi, the 5000-year-old mummy of an iceman dragged from a glacier. All of his possessions would have biodegraded had he not been frozen. We look at him as primitive but humans were once less damaging to the environment. It makes us question our ideas of progress …«
»Yes, the thing is, in some years, we are going to have to land somewhere new. Or old!« the playwright-director replies, »Perhaps we will have to return to an Ötzi-style way of being in nature. We consider materials like plastic or synthetic fibre to be inorganic but, in fact, they come from nature. It's our specific way of processing these materials that makes them artificial or man-made. It's a very characteristic difference between apes and humans: apes use tools, they plan in advance, they think, they have elaborate social structures, they kill each other, and even make other species extinct. But they don't use oil to create new materials. That is why oil is important to me in this play: it's the source for plastic and petrol. It destroys nature and causes the climate to change if you burn it. Wars are fought for it and it’s the main weapon in the human war against nature. I’m intrigued that it comes from past creatures who lived on earth. We are fighting for the dead bodies of life that came before us. It’s like we are pumping them out of their graves, disturbing the peace of the dead«.
Thinking about his plays »Fireface« and »Stück Plastik«, I ask, »You are again using the family unit to discuss your themes. But are you doing so differently this time?«
»One thing I can describe that is different is that I am not searching for the small thing that explains the big thing. Rather I am trying to talk about the big issues themselves. In other plays, if I wanted to talk about the question––about identity or German history––I tried to find a small story that could contain the big topic. Here, the performers take on a range of different roles, not just within a family, also in a company, in society. They purposefully have a vague job description and personalities. It’s more about what they say and less about their back stories or set identities.«
Von Mayenburg continues, »When I wrote this play, I tried to listen to different voices in a discourse, to develop these further to more extreme positions. Theatre can be an amplifier or a magnifying glass that makes things visible. I wanted to talk about a frustration with our failure to live up to the standards of our own faculty of reason. And I wanted to show, at the same time, that it's ridiculous to be frustrated, to sulk like a child who didn't get what it wanted. This general frustration––the frustration about the frustration––is something that needed to be part of the play. I focus on language: how do we talk about these things; what does it do to our body; how does language become action; how does it create reality? There is a lot of talking in this play, but I think the talking is the action. In a way, you could say that the main character Rupp is talking himself into becoming an ape. The magic is done through language and not actions exterior to the characters.«
»And what does Rupp’s becoming an ape tell us about being human? About positivism? About progress?«
Von Mayenburg explains, »In this play we see human beings in transition. They aren’t apes yet. They are like the missing link. Meanwhile, I am caught on a question: does our cruelty originate in our ape ancestry? Or are we cruel because we are human? What part makes us cause wars? Chimps also kill, eat meat, start wars. They have history. The central question is: is nature sane and we are insane as we corrupt nature’s beauty? Or is nature the cruel thing we need to overcome? This line of thought leads to all sorts of questions: will technology save nature in the end because it gives us the resources to feed everyone? Or is the solution to return to a simple life, like Ötzi’s? One where we still have to kills animals? I can’t answer these questions. But they keep me busy.«
by Marius von Mayenburg
Director: Marius von Mayenburg
Premieres on 11 March 2020Trailer