Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview Pearson's Preview en-us Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview 890 116 Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview <![CDATA[Oedipus, but not a Rewriting]]> Mon, 30 Aug 2021 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson


For many years, the Epidauros Festival, with its setting in the most perfect theatre of the ancient world, encouraged the Schaubühne’s Thomas Ostermeier to work on a Greek classic. »I always refused«, the director tells me, »Because I don’t believe in the concept of destiny«.

It’s not surprising that a man whose work has been dedicated in the past years––in productions such as »Returning to Reims« and »A History of Violence« ––to how individuals overcome limits such as class, gender, and heteronormativity, might baulk at the ancients’ theology. Ostermeier explains, »At the end of the day, every Greek play tells you not to cross borders. I could not deal with this cosmology, but the festival kept asking me to bring them a play. So, I asked Maja Zade«.

The German playwright, and long-time collaborator of Ostermeier, is sitting next to me in the offices of the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin. Her chamber dramas, set in domestic settings (»abgrund«), or workplaces (»status quo«), capture the language of the everyday, but with an Attic clarity that the ancients would appreciate.

Zade tells me: »When Thomas suggested the classic, I thought: could this function as a psychological chamber play? Reading the Sophocles, consulting other sources, and swapping synopses, we realised we were both very interested in someone’s life completely collapsing from one moment to the next. We also found themes that resonate today«.

The result is a new work, Zade’s »oedipus«, in which the gods are absent.

But what happens to the plot structure and other dramatic elements when this major motor, the confrontation between man and the gods, is removed? What opportunities are there for a play when it exits Greek cosmology? These questions are linked with a fundamental task: what does it mean to make Oedipus contemporary? A play that is a close mapping of the Greek world onto the contemporary is unavoidably artificial since few of us live with the same beliefs as the ancient Athenians. We don’t have the same anthropology.

Ostermeier’s hesitation in staging the play in the first place, then, is not only a pre-condition for his collaboration, but also for staging an Oedipus that we can believe in.


If an audience member sits down in the ancient theatre of Epidauros for Zade’s premiere, looking for one »oedipus« to map directly onto the other, she will be (intentionally) disappointed. Maja Zade’s is not a rewriting of the Sophocles.

»I never attempted a réécriture«, Zade explains, » But there were elements from the original that I knew I would keep: that it would occur in one day, that the cast of central characters would be quite small. I thought of the motifs and themes that were interesting. Unavoidably, it became more complicated than my other plays because the plot of »Oedipus« is more complicated than other plays. And we also talked about the title: whether it should be called »oedipus« or not, but I thought it was a playful reference to the classic. I wouldn’t say it’s in dialogue with Sophocles. Instead, it’s inspired by it«.

And yet, the contemporary audience might still expect certain alignments with the classic. This joy was also shared by the ancients, who were familiar with the myths and alert to the variations particular to each tragedian. They experienced something delicious, for example, identifying the changes in Euripides’ retelling of Aeschylus’s »Oresteia« stories.

Zade tells me, »I would personally never come up with such an outrageous plot, about killing the father, about incest with the mother. You would think it’s completely far-fetched and melodramatic. But there was joy in the craft of it, of putting it together in a psychological way that you think is not preposterous. That was challenging, and fun––getting it to work«.

I suggest, »The audience enjoys this too. There is strangely a pleasure in watching the completion of a story that you know already––«

»Yes, you expect that there will be a great revelation. But how will you get there? Of course, it’s enjoyable to drop little hints in the text that the audience can appreciate but the characters don’t yet grasp«.

Thomas continues, »It’s not what is happening, it’s how it’s happening. That is the pleasure. To watch it unfold. My advice to the audience going to Epidauros: it’s good if you know the play. You can appreciate what Maja did with it, the changes, the nuances. There is a bigger joy if you know the myth«.


Despite this distancing from the classic, taken by playwright and director, there is a resonance between today and the 5th-century Athens of Sophocles.

Ancient cosmology is, of course, also a motor of suspense. It gives sense to the plot of these plays. There is the familiar structure of mere mortals lacking the perfect knowledge of the gods. In their shortcomings and hubris, they suffer for their scientific pretensions, their illusions of free will, for not accepting their lot. The audience anticipates reversal and nemesis. Fate’s punishment ultimately provides both a climax and a theological lesson, even if it is sometimes questioned by the more daring of the ancient playwrights.

This pattern is epitomised in what Aristotle dubbed the »most perfect tragedy«, Sophocles’s »Oedipus the King«, in which the hero famously becomes a detective, looking for the reasons why Thebes is beset by a terrible plague. Oedipus cannot fathom, despite all the evidence before him, that the detective and perpetrator are one: that »I… killed my father and married my mother infamously. Now I am godless and child of impurity, begetter in the same seed that created my wretched self. If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Oedipus« (l. 1357 ff.). Oedipus gores out his eyes, to atone symbolically for this blindness.

In Zade’s play, questions of power might not be between man and god. But there are conflicts more credible and familiar to contemporary audiences that drive the action forward and create tension. The detective work is still in action, but it concerns an ecological disaster, and the struggle is between two ways of dealing with the accident––differing forms of rule that are revealed during the investigation.

Zade explains, »I think the play is about power and how you govern. How you exercise your power and how men and women use it differently. Something I observed about the Sophocles is that Jocasta barely figures, except when she runs off and kills herself. It was important to me that it was also her story and that there was an equal number of men and women in the cast. That’s why there is Theresa and why I make a woman the boss«.

Thomas adds, »And, especially in the first two acts, Maja looks at another power struggle: the younger woke generation, represented by Oedipus, conflicts with the patriarchy, represented by an old family-led business, and managers who believe that the company comes before everything. It is what makes the play so vivid, relevant and surprising: there are many overlapping concepts of acting out power«.

Oedipus, as a representative of a principled, younger generation, is interested in truth and doing what is righteous––his flaw, one could argue. He comes up against the old guard––perhaps as a mapping of the struggle between Oedipus and Creon in the ancient play––because he relentlessly pursues the cause of the ecological accident. But the older generation looks for ways to cover up their misdoings.

An intriguing continuity with the old play is that those who look for truth are still defeated. But not by the gods anymore, but by a system of corporate governance that is outside of divine morality. In this sense, the old guard of business interests arguably resembles the gods, who themselves are outside morality and, with only a few exceptions, do what they please. In this way, the company’s moral position resonates with our contemporary global crises.

Zade says, »Without making it too obvious, the way these characters discuss running the company is also how political discussion works. How honest are you? How do you spin things? How do you run a country?«


The play revolves around an ecological accident, and so, by extension, how we are managing the planet. What long-term plan do we have when something pollutes the land? This phrase, »polluting the land«, is precisely the language of the Sophocles when he describes a pestilence gripping Thebes. In the end, it is Oedipus who is the cause––just as we all might consider our relationship to the daily, and distracted, incremental decimation of our natural environment.

There is something much sadder and more deterministic in this play than the Athenian original, in that the pestilence is a stain imprinted on the land that is not so easily removed. It’s almost indelible. In the ancient world, there was also hope that the gods might correct, or reverse, man’s follies. Nemesis can punish, but it can also save. Without this theology, no one is coming to help us.

Zade tells me, »We thought about what kind of ecological disasters might befall those running a large, successful company––«

Ostermeier continues, »The important thing was that there needed to be a connection between Oedipus’ actions and the ecological disaster. Knowing we wanted that, our possibilities were limited. We thought he could be part of nuclear catastrophe. We also considered a pandemic but found it difficult to imagine how it could be Oedipus’s responsibility. I am glad we did not go that route. We needed a more metaphorical solution, not an issue play about one-and-a-half years after Covid-19. That would be too banal«.

I ask, »Is there, nonetheless, a shadow of the Corona years over the production?«

Ostermeier replies, »Not only one-and-a-half years of Corona but everything linked to global crisis: the heat in the west coast, the 45 C temperatures experienced in Vancouver, the fires in Greece. Not only the floods we experienced in Germany, but also those in Bangladesh and China. All are manmade global catastrophes––«

»Even Covid-19 is spread by ourselves––« I say.

»Yes«, Thomas continues, »And this connects to my understanding of the »Oedipus« play. Let me tell you an anecdote. When the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris happened, on 13th November 2015, we were scheduled to perform director Romeo Castellucci’s production of »Oedipus the Tyrant« in Paris the next day. It was a Schaubühne production. Many in our company refused to go, out of fear. Others thought it was an important way to show solidarity with the Parisians. The intendant of the Théâtre de la Ville, where we performed, even stood up in front of the audience to defend Enlightenment values: we must perform even when we are in danger, even when there is terrorism«.

»Watching that play, I understood how I read »Oedipus«. The play is about a problem that puts a society in danger. You investigate the source of the problem and find out it’s yourself. This is my reading also of those terrorist attacks. All the Parisian terrorists grew up in Paris. They are part of our society. Not some extremists from Afghanistan. They are people expelled from our society. At the heart of the play are such problems, our divisions between rich and poor, migrants versus the documented, the ecological catastrophes we enable. So, when we go through a global pandemic, what is the appropriate story to put on stage? It’s not Camus’s »La Peste«. It’s »Oedipus«. It’s a play about where we are at the moment, because we are the problem––«

In this way, we return to the beginning of the discussion––how, now, we have no gods to blame.

<![CDATA[A Reply to Distancing, with »Michael Kohlhaas« ]]> Wed, 18 Nov 2020 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

I see the actors–­–tested regularly––unmasked on stage. It’s a rehearsal of Heinrich von Kleist’s »Michael Kohlhaas« at the Schaubühne. They stand close, wrap around each other, share the same air. One touches the other’s face. The video focuses on the gesture. As the production plays with intimacy, it creates a longing for different times.

»Touch is incredibly important for this production«, director Simon McBurney tells me, »And the way that people experience touch is, of course, heightened as a consequence of Coronavirus«.

»I miss the easiness of touch«, I reply.

»Aren’t we lucky?« smiles co-director Annabel Arden, his long-time collaborator and co-founder of Complicité. She looks to the stage, »It is important to say how much the audience means to us, and how we assert the human need to gather and listen together«.

Around the Schaubühne, things are not as usual: a month of performances has been cancelled, the café is shuttered, signs on the glass doors say »closed«. I feel like I am breaking into the building as I wander past the warnings and the dispensers for disinfectant and am observed by the designated »Corona Officers« who evaluate hygienic measures. The practice stage is limited by number of occupants. I sit with a respirator mask in a chair in the corner. The company are working so hard, without the knowledge that they will be able to premiere as planned in December. Already, Thomas Ostermeier’s »Vernon Subutex I« has been delayed for the second time because of the epidemic.

McBurney is a familiar presence at the Schaubühne. I first interviewed him during FIND 2015 for his work-in-progress »Amazon Beaming«. McBurney returned the next year to work with the ensemble on Stefan Zweig’s »Beware of Pity«. German-language literature is again the theme with Kleist. There are continuities between these productions: innovative and delicate sound design (»Amazon Beaming« had the whole audience wearing headsets), an experimental approach to character (the actors share and blur identities), a playful mix of staged reading, dramatic performance and video projection.

The minimal set today is dominated by an enormous screen behind the stage, and two smaller ones to the sides. Otherwise, I only see during this rehearsal a few chairs and props. The richness comes from the actors’ gestures and the projections: early modern portraits of Junkers, the bodies of horses, historical scenes from the world of Kleist’s novella.

McBurney reflects: »The set reflects the world of Michael Kohlhaas. When he suffers an injustice, the order of things is disturbed, and his world begins to separate into fragments. The austerity, if you like, of the book is reflected in the austerity of the set, and its images of fragmentation, of shattering. By removing everything, everything is in the here and now. This is just as it has to be in this moment, performing in a moment of Coronavirus, in the chaos of the world. COVID heightens a sense of separation, but it is a part of the society we inhabit. Most of the time we don’t pay attention to this distancing, and then suddenly we realise how deeply divided we are one from one other and from nature. The fact that the set is completely bare is also, it seems to me, highly appropriate to the nature of this story and the nature of our time as we try to piece together all sorts of different fragments and turn them into a coherent whole«.

I ask McBurney what »the whole« might be.

He looks to continuities: »The story should, I hope, link us back in time to Kleist. Kleist himself leaps himself over 250 years to Michael Kohlhaas, to say that we are in continuity with the past. The past is not a separate thing from us, which is how we tend to think of it. Just as nature is not. Telling the story, and telling it now––finding the means to tell it––is also an act of conjunction, certainly an attempt at that. It is not only a way of bringing the story alive but also to feel the spirit of the man who wrote the story. We thereby join that time with this time, just as he joined the previous time with his own«.

»Is Covid an opportunity, or a moment for reflection, to redress these separations?«

»In theory, it’s an opportunity to begin again. But not everyone is doing that. We talk about going »back to normal«, but you can’t go back. Time and space go forward, and so, we are not able to go backward. And so, the question is what kind of forwards do we go into?«

»Michael Kohlhaas«, written by Kleist in 1810, is based on the real hardships of a 16th-century horse trader. A nobleman wrongs Kohlhaas by detaining and starving his horses and using his influence in the court to prevent the man from seeking justice. After Kohlhaas’s wife enters the spat and pays with her life, the trader wages war on his enemies, burning their properties, cities, and demanding justice.

The path from the early 19th-century novella to the stage is not a straightforward one. It is not easy to tell a story on stage that roams between castles and cities, over great distances in early modern Europe. But language, unexpectedly, is even more of a challenge. Reading Kohlhaas in German, one observes how knotty it is. But a reader of translations by Martin Greenberg––or the newer one by Michael Hofmann for that matter––will be surprised by the simplification of the unwieldy mouthfuls of prose in English.

Playwright Maja Zade, dramaturge on the production, explains, that »the language in Kohlhaas is very forensic and detailed. There’s not a great deal of description of people’s motives or feelings. The sentences usually have several subclauses, and often subclauses within subclauses, and sometimes a sentence changes direction halfway through and goes down a different path from how it started. So, you have to spend a good deal of time trying to figure out what the sentence actually means before you can then try to speak it in a way that will make sense to an audience«.

McBurney reflects, »I’m humbled by the work, and working with it in the original at the Schaubühne. Kleist deliberately employs an unemotional, distanced, style but one that also has incredible speed and inevitability and power. This is exemplified in the very opening sentence of the whole novella:

An den Ufern der Havel lebte, um die Mitte des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts, ein Roßhändler, namens Michael Kohlhaas, Sohn eines Schulmeisters, einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und entsetzlichsten Menschen seiner Zeit.

On the banks of the River Havel, in the middle of the 16th century, there lived a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, son of a schoolmaster, at once one of the most righteous and terrible men of his day.

»Everything unfolds from that paradox, which is, in a sense, a mythical human paradox. We can be righteous but we are also terrible. Everything tumbles from that. The style, with its multiple sub-clauses and vast single sentences, almost sculpts the situations with words. He uses words like clay or bricks or scaffolding. Then, we must situate ourselves within that construction rather than imagining we are this person because we identify with a particular voice, sinking into it in a fuzzy and emotional way because we sympathise. Here, it is much more demanding and more austere and even strangely absurd«.

»Thinking about the moral issues in the text. Is Kohlhaas fighting for the greater good or is he a petty rogue? Is violence an appropriate path forward when the State cannot deliver justice?« I ask.

»The question how you manage to get justice is very complex. The basic premise is that this man, Michael Kohlhaas, who completely believes in society, discovers that the world has changed for him. Everything begins to unravel bit by bit. The world is not necessarily ordered but disordered. A very simple and tiny disorder can ultimately lead to extraordinary disorder. Human beings try to bring order within the chaos. They have something called law and justice and these are systems we believe in. But we are reminded of constantly that they are human constructs and not eternal absolutes and, once they are disturbed, can unravel completely. Out of the chaos can rise many different things: whether it is Donald Trump, or ISIS, or all sorts of extremism. What we assume is right and balanced and possible are all suddenly called into question. We see perhaps, at that point, the limitations of being human: the frailty, the weaknesses, the fact that these are all human narratives. They are not eternal laws«.

»How then do we evaluate his response to this disintegration?«

»Ultimately, Michael Kohlhaas’s response to injustice is violence. That is the only way that he can conceive of righting a wrong. He can’t see any other possibility. He justifies it because he sees himself as a moral man: because society has not allowed him to get justice within the laws of society. He, therefore, at that point, becomes an outcast and––once outside society––has the moral right to choose how he wants to behave. Now, there is another way of behaving. If you wanted to gender the subject, you could say this recourse to violence is a fundamentally masculine response. What is interesting is that there is another way: that is, resistance through non-violence, as in the case of somebody like Chelsea Manning, who exposes the injustice of what happens but then accepts immediately whatever punishment comes with that. But the resistance to injustice is equally strong in both the case of Kohlhaas and Manning«.

»What other individuals have inspired your narrative? What do their responses mean for our times?«

»Another exposure to injustice is someone like Ed Snowden. Other people who resist injustice include, for example, Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, who died for his beliefs. Equally, you can point to contemporary figures, Arundhati Roy, or organisations combatting climate injustice like Extinction Rebellion. All of these people are challenging conventional narratives. Constantly, the response of the conventional narrative is that there are proper channels to go through. We are government; you need to go through government. But the question––which is at the heart of »Michael Kohlhaas«––is yes, but will that change anything? His example is: it will only change if I make it change. If we are the change. In other words: be the change! We have to be the change«.

<![CDATA[Rockers, Balzac, and Neoliberalism: »Vernon Subutex 1« at the Schaubühne]]> Thu, 22 Oct 2020 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

For once, I visit a rehearsal at the Schaubühne, not at the practice stage in Reinickendorf but the main venue on Kurfürstendamm. The theatre, after all, has been emptied of performances for months with the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic. The café is full of protective plastic partitions and rehearsals depend on a regime of regular testing and designated officers who enforce distancing.

Thomas Ostermeier’s newest creation, »Vernon Subutex I«, based on the novel by Virginie Despentes, is a testament of endurance. It was originally scheduled to premiere in May 2020. Now we find ourselves in October with the premiere planned for November. Even this date isn’t guaranteed. Still, everyone continues with the work.

I have spent many months outside the theatre. So, when I enter Saal A, the sudden sight of the modular set, revolving like an LP under the atmospheric lights, stirs up strong feelings. It’s a social world off-limits to most of us right now. Live music! A rock band! Ruth Rosenfeld sings Sonic Youth’s »Bull in the Heather«, her hands fluttering around her swaying body, in a field of chrome, pleather, black piping, and tube lighting. A gun hangs over the rocker scene like a portent. The entire spectacle, with its scaffolding of video, appears as an enormous installation.

Thomas Ostermeier tells me that he wanted to reproduce the spirit of a rock concert.

»The set is like bar or club in Kreuzberg where I’d feel comfortable, a run-down apartment, an old record shop, the feeling of that world we knew when we were 20 but is now gone. What has become of rock and roll culture? To punk and our ideals of anarchy and changing the world?« 

While Berlin might be a little behind Paris in the corporate take-over, the protagonist’s story of becoming homeless after he loses his record store will resonate.

»Berliners know the spirit of SO36 and squatting houses. People from any city will recognise what happens when you made your living as a bass guitar player in any modest punk band and didn’t become famous. You can’t become a rock and roll star at 50. And now your apartment is being pulled from under your feet«.

The atmospheric world on-stage is threatened by the market and financial crises. Video projections afford us glimpses to the underbelly of Paris: homeless people, discounter shops, an elderly man feeding pigeons from his grocery cart. The Coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated this older problem of income inequality, accelerating the closure of so many of these rocker venues.

Ostermeier tells me, »With COVID, many musicians are in trouble. Virginie Despentes feels that COVID produces more Vernons––more victims«.

The volume of the band on-stage grows. Henri Jakobs rocks his bass. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty /Tell me that you want to scold me / Tell me that you a-dore me / Tell me that you're famous for me. A video funnels us into the underpass of a Parisian freeway. The image of a woman absorbed on her mobile phone flickers on the scene. We have the feeling of rushing forward as the set revolves.

Ostermeier follows my attention, »We didn’t pick the obvious rock hits. Not ones you recognise at once. We went for some pearls of rock history: Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four. Maybe the whole production will only be understood by people who share this musical taste, who have been in leftist radical circles, squatted houses, been part of »Gegenkultur« phenomenon. It’s an evening for connoisseurs«.

Virginie Despentes’s novel »Vernon Subutex I«, was published on the morning of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. She has a habit of anticipating social tension: her novel and film, »Rape Me« (»Baise-Moi«, 1994/2000), and essay »King Kong Theory« hailed a French neo-feminism.  These works celebrated an aggressive feminine sexuality that challenged received feminist objections to pornography and prostitution. Despentes’s series of three »Vernon Subutex« novels (2015-2017) steer away from explicit sexuality. Instead, the crisis of a generation––Generation X-ers in their fifties, grappling with the alienations of neoliberalism, political extremism, right-wing violence, and jihadism––is in her sights.

The vehicle for critique is a »has-been«: Vernon, last name Subutex (suggesting, like a clever line of a French chanson, both the heroin treatment and an invitation to close reading). After the failure of his record store, Subutex is homeless. »La crise du disque« is just one symbol for the crisis of automation and technological unemployment explored in the book. Subutex is forced to catch up with old friends and enemies so he can couch-surf. The itinerant bed-hopper is a Fabian: wandering Paris, destitute, into the lives of these former 90s-band groupies who have grown up to become neoliberal subjects, obsessed with fame, money, self-gratification. They are victims of all of the above.

Despentes’s writings can make you furious. Her language is crude; she doesn’t censor her characters’ racist and sexist idiom. Name-dropping––of defunct bands, the names of clubs and apps––is a constant pitter-patter. It is the ephemeral junk of pop culture, the kind you might have heard over the plasticised LPs of Vernon’s record shop before it went bust. The perambulating author omnisciently inhabits various narrators on the coattails of homeless Vernon. The focalised narration is either a guilty pleasure––or ugly voyeurism––depending on your impression of the ensuing »bitch-fest« (her language). Hiding in the centre of this trash heap (I imagine someone in pearls and stilettos excavating at the dumpster) is the void left by a recently deceased rock star, Alex Bleach.

»Vernon Subutex« is not intended to make the reader comfortable. Despentes’s garbage is carefully organised and we are looking for something in it. Everyone is after the acrid scent of the deceased famous person, his eponymous but corrosive cleansing power. The void of his death stands in for the lost dreams of a generation.

The packaging of the novel is its critique of neoliberalism and Despentes’s portraits are lessons in failure. You don’t need to dig deep to unearth her syndicalist upbringing: her solidarity with not only the poor but also–– intersectionally––the socially marginal, such as immigrants and trans people. »Vernon Subutex« is a dirge for a generation but also a cry of pain for the future, in which young people can no longer be counted on to be good lefties. Surprisingly, it is also a testament to the accidental solidarity, and knack for survival, of those who have otherwise been stripped of everything.

A frequent visitor to the Schaubühne will notice that Ostermeier productions of late – »Returning to Reims, »A History of Violence«, »Youth without God« – have been prose adaptations.

»That many are French is an accident«, he tells me, »And one doesn’t necessarily lead into the other: nothing I learned from »Histoire de la violence« prepared me for »Vernon Subutex«. The novel’s structure was theatrical, because of the constantly changing point of view.  But the challenge was to put a series of monologues on stage in a way that was not static. You will notice that one-third of the evening is music, which is very important«.

I am about to ask: Why did you choose a book that is so difficult to put on stage?
But I remember Thomas once told me: »I like difficult!«

I ask instead: Why did you choose »Vernon Subutex«?

»Because of the novel’s construction, of someone who ends up without an apartment. Virginie Despentes gives this protagonist the possibility to meet different milieus, different places and people. With this construction, she makes possible a Balzac-like societal panorama. Any filmmaker or novelist dreams of one day being able to tell it all, the stories that connect individuals to get to a bigger view of contemporary society. That is what »Vernon Subutex« tries to do, incredibly beautifully, and with feminist and trans perspectives that are rare.«

»I also thought of Balzac«, I tell him, »Vernon shows us how friends and old acquaintances instrumentalise each other. Friendship is a form of social manoeuvring. It’s a familiar trope about Paris«

»Yes, but not just Paris. Vernon wanders at the edges of a world of pop culture, glamour, and social media, which the audience will recognise. It is a world which pretends that anyone who fights hard enough can make it and can even make money out of it. Which is a lie. For our generation, there was still this promise that we might build up a more equal world. Instead today things are less social and more unjust.«

<![CDATA[The Missing Link in Marius von Mayenburg’s »The Apes«]]> Thu, 20 Feb 2020 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

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.«


<![CDATA[Playing with Change </br> Lars Eidinger and John Bock’s Collaborative Peer Gynt]]> Tue, 28 Jan 2020 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

»Peer Gynt«, premiering at the Schaubühne this February, is something of an event as it brings together the talents of the actor Lars Eidinger and the artist John Bock.

Let me begin with Eidinger since––on the way to rehearsal, musing on the U-Bahn––I asked myself what kind of play might appeal to him as a director and actor? Somewhere between Rosenthaler Platz and Paracelsus Bad stations, I came up with a list of criteria (just guesses): 1.) must have a hero with the capacity for psychological depth: this is the man, after all, who embodied Hamlet and Richard III;  2.) must be wild and fantastical: one begins to admire the capacity for playfulness in Eidinger’s work having seen Rodrigo Garcia’s »I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of Sleep than Some Arsehole« or Thomas Ostermeier’s »A Midsummer’s Night Dream«;  3.) must have the capacity to push boundaries: Eidinger is famously unafraid of a shitstorm.

Peer Gynt checks all these boxes. Ibsen wrote of his 1867 play in verse that it was »reckless and formless, written with no thought of the consequences«. It could not even be created at home––only abroad, on a Southern Italian journey. Peer Gynt has the imprint of the itinerant––picaresque and episodic in character, spread over continents––with enough distance from the Heimat to imbue the work with a hefty dose of satire. Not only are Romantic and individualistic strains of the Norwegian temperament picked apart, so too is a national mythology peopled with trolls and milkmaids. As the play sprawls geographically, with its large cast of characters that spring from Peer Gynt’s imagination, it blurs fantasy and reality. But it is the protagonist, a fortune-seeking Norwegian peasant, who ties the novel together. In the vein of a negative Bildungsroman, Peer Gynt goes abroad for self-realization but returns home a broken man.

I arrive at the Schaubühne’s practice stage to discover a sprawling modular set: of tents and restricted spaces, slides, places for crawling around. It seems a space for improvisation and self-discovery––for being animal-like, for blurring fantasy and reality. From a corner, I hear the synthpop strains of A-ha. There’s an enormous screen: on which passes the random, identity-splicing aesthetic of internet video consumption. Eidinger arrives in tight underwear and garters, a blond wig, a white face of make-up. He also wears, improbably, a plush green toilet seat on his head. (And am I the only one who has noticed how much Lars eats on stage?) The scene in the hall of the Troll King that follows pulses with the eclectic, shimmering, and wild.

At first, the set appears a massive playpen or playground for Eidinger as the sole actor of the production––after all, I heard the phrase »baby punk« bandied around the set––but John Bock, who made the stage design and costumes, swiftly corrects me that it’s not a playground at all. The set has rather the feeling of a barn, an agricultural flavour. You’ll have to see! But the work is, at least to my eye, identifiably Bock: the multi-level constructions, collage of everyday objects, mix of video and performance. It’s a remarkable spatial installation touched by the grotesque.

What I see in common between Eidinger and Bock is this streak of whimsy. I ask how they came to work together. 

»We work very well together«, says Bock, »One has an idea, the other one assembles it, one cuts something away, another one pastes something new inside. It’s like playing with change. And it works very well«.

»I was one of John’s fans for a long time«, says Lars.


»I had no idea!« says Bock.


Eidinger describes seeing one of his exhibits in Switzerland. And then an installation at an art fair in Berlin, where he was drawing on paper plates on which he served Toast Hawaii (for the non-initiated: an open-faced ham and cheese sandwich, grilled and adorned with a maraschino cherry on a pineapple ring).

»Everyone was so excited, they wanted their own little artwork by John«, says Eidinger.

»And the toast too, I imagine.«, I add.

»Yes, they were hot for the toast! I was waiting for one and John said: here’s one for someone who eats dirt so beautifully! And I understood then that he had seen Hamlet. He gave me his number and he started coming to the theatre. We started doing performances together, and two films. That is how we met. I always wanted to play Peer Gynt, the way I have always wanted to do Hamlet and Richard, and so I asked John if he could imagine doing theatre. He was immediately interested. He didn’t have to think about it: he immediately said yes«.

Then, what of Peer Gynt as a protagonist? Is he an anti-hero, a poet, a free spirit, or just lying and feckless? I turn to Eidinger and ask, ‘Do you like Peer Gynt as a character?’

»I try to play roles with which I can identify, but I am not interested in judging. I think instead: where is the starting point with this character? How can I make the most of him, as I have tried with Hamlet or Richard? But yes, I like him«.

Eidinger goes on to discuss the dreamlike quality of the piece, »The figures that Peer Gynt confronts spring from his fantasy. Each one of them has something of him: part of his personality. Solveig, for example, I see as the childlike self of Peer Gynt, something imprinted on him that through his travels and traumas has been locked away inside of himself«.

»Is Peer Gynt an anti-hero?« I ask.

»None of us are heroes. The hero is fictitious, an invention, it’s a romantic idea and is not realisable. We are all anti-heroes. The hope is that the public will look at Peer Gynt and recognise themselves. Because while one might strive to be a hero, with the anti-hero one is brought to reflection«.

Listening to Eidinger speak about these question of identity, I ask if they have chosen to focus on the more intimate and psychological possibilities of Ibsen’s play rather than its political satire and social critique.

John Bock replies, »There is this demand that one must react politically and make a statement for the seated audience. But these concerns are far from ours. We offer a subjective view, which we throw at the feet of the public, and whether they like it or not, they are free to decide. We do not wish to educate the public morally. Would you agree, Lars?«

Lars laughs, »Yes, except, it does matter to me if they like it or not! I want them to like it very much!«

<![CDATA[A Playground of Ambiguity </br>Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s »Die Anderen«]]> Sat, 02 Nov 2019 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

A special challenge presents itself when writing about Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s new production, »Die Anderen«. A secret lies at the centre of this play and it’s one I don’t want to give away. You will need to come and see the production to find out. And, in the meantime, I suggest you read as little as possible about it to safeguard the surprise. Except for this preview, of course, which – I promise – is spoiler-free, except for maybe a clue or two…

Let’s start with the set. A whole building built on-stage, a revolving set with interior hallways and many rooms that you can only see obliquely or through video. Early one Thursday, before the actors begin their rehearsal, I walk inside, feeling like I am crossing into somewhere forbidden.

It’s a maze of claustrophobic spaces. I smell something acrid and almost get wet paint on my jacket. The hotel is creepy: full of stuffed animal trophies and yesteryear furniture. The spaces are much smaller than I at first expect: it’s an illusion that will only be ameliorated and enlarged when filmed.

The actors are called on stage and I sit on a chair in the dark. I am lucky to observe the cumulative scene of the play, which takes place on the Feast of St Martin. Vandalem switches between French and English, a translator is involved, the actors reply in a smattering of languages. It feels like all of Europe is on-stage.

Vandalem is mesmerising to watch; she is both omnipresent and gives more space to the actors than many directors. How does she combine these opposites? The actors are encouraged to improvise, to take control of their characters.  But Vandalem remains also constantly vigilant: sensitively pulling them back if at any moment their world becomes disharmonious, when even a small gesture seems off-key. She poses them psychological teasers such as: »What consoles you? What pushes you into trauma? Do you have more power when speaking or by remaining silent? What would be different if you left the room now instead of staying? Is this the right moment to cry? What if you wait to cry?« Her direction demonstrates a fine balance between the devised and director-led theatre, combining both flexibility and attention to detail.

When we finally break for lunch, it seems an obvious question, but I ask it anyhow of the director, »Why in your productions do you create these structures on stage, these worlds with hidden passages and compartments? Why this meta-reality?« I am thinking of the ocean-liner in her previous production, »Arctique«, or a village of houses in »Tristesses«.

Vandalem replies, »If I have nothing to hide, I cannot show. These sets create another dimension for the piece. As the set turns, it can show or not show. You can choose to go inside the set or not. I can choose to reveal an otherwise impenetrable space or keep it a secret. A scene in the kitchen is unseen until I choose to reveal it with a camera, while at the same time I can show something different occurring elsewhere. Working with a set like this one is a gift of possibilities to the director. It’s a tool. A playground!«

All this creates the necessary uncertainty for a play with a secret at its heart. Ambiguity – like that suggested by these impenetrable rooms only mediated by the camera – is also suggested by many of the aesthetic choices.

The »Old Continent Hotel« is not where I’d ever like to spend a night or take a meal (although writing a Tripadvisor review afterwards would be an amusingly macabre exercise). The hotel presents a set of unknowns: it is difficult to place where this hotel is located or the time period of the action. It is in the future but the interiors are drab, the furniture is utilitarian and vintage. Vandalem upends our desire to solve the temporal questions. Notions of progress are frustrated: perhaps the future will look more like the past, like a second-hand shop.

I ask about this atemporal aesthetic, and Vandalem replies, »We did not want the set to be either old or new. It’s always a combination of different layers, styles, and periods, melded together. Again, we are not after too much clarity. Rather we want to put the audience in a mood of questioning, of being surprised. Insecurity is our goal. It is a strategy. It is as if you have entered into a past where you think you have already been and you believe you have recognised something. But, in fact, you haven’t«.

This sense of mystery goes with the subject matter, of course. Without giving too much away, the play examines how a village relives a tragedy through the passage of migrants. When the drunken manager of the hotel runs over a boy with her car, she hides him in the hotel, and raises suspicions among the other villagers. Through the microcosm of the often brutal interactions in a hotel, we can begin to ask questions about European societies’ notions of belonging and difference.

But Vandalem is insistent that her world is not exactly ours. It’s an artwork, after all, and she tells me, »It’s obvious, I belong to the world and we reflect on it in the piece. But it is not a piece about migration or climate change, even if these are part of the story. For me, fiction is the condition of my work. Because I really believe that fiction is the only way of getting around this reality in which we are stuck, to read the reality, to have a position and an opinion«.

Karolien de Schepper, one of the set designers, adds, »Think of it like reading the newspaper and then that actuality entering your dreams – not in a direct way, but distorted. The politics are always there, but it remains dreamlike«.

Vandalem continues, »And this dream is an entire world not just built of actors and a story, but it is a visual, musical and atmospheric world. It is one which we can dive into – one that has its humour, and is, of course, tainted by the secret, the trauma that it contains«.

»And who are ›the others‹?« I ask.

Vandalem replies, a little mysteriously, »That is the question for the audience«.

<![CDATA[Playing Lego with Herbert Fritsch]]> Fri, 04 Oct 2019 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

Herbert Fritsch and I sit on a park bench with a voice recorder between us. A wiry and bright-eyed man, he’s electrified as his production of »Amphitryon« comes together. But this time, he tells me, he is doing things differently.

»This is the first time I am so fluid in my work. That I am not confined by a strong formal structure.«

I think about other Fritsch productions at the Schaubühne and their controlled worlds: »Zeppelin«, where the enormous cage of a blimp is a precise grid from which actors hang and tumble. Ödon von Horváth’s theatre is deconstructed to an opera of minimal sounds. Or »Null« with its careful patter of language as the actors move in a percussive ballet. Both were tightly choreographed productions.

I tell Fritsch, »From what I saw today in rehearsal, this production appears to be the opposite of ›Zeppelin‹. You make few alterations to Molière’s text and you put aside a predetermined choreography«.

»Exactly«, he replies, »I am reacting and refuting this strong form of directing. Compared to ›Zeppelin‹, here is there is more flexibility«.

The morphology of the stage gives the actors options. Decked with banners that recess, the stage design is by Fritsch himself. Each banner indicates one of many entrances (»Gassen«) to the wings leading off-stage. There’s a surprise element: who knows where or when an actor might appear? And the suggestion of an infinite recession resembles a double mirror but in bright colours. It is neither metallic nor cold, but playful. This design, with its entrances, is a nod to the Baroque stage and the 17th-century origins of Molière’s play.

Fritsch fans will not be disappointed. The actors still act like Fritsch creations: as if they are plugged into an electrical current, whose voltage sometimes jumps, forcing a joyful gesticulation or an awkward expression. The marimba and piano play a live, pulsing, counterpoint. But Fritsch encourages the actors and musicians to follow their intuition when delivering the text. They experiment with swift improvised changes in dramatic style: from melodrama to murder mystery, to romance. I watch the ensemble practice the same scene in rehearsal in two or three different ways: once fast and angry – as if bathed in amber light – one character punishing the other. Then the next is a love scene, which I can imagine tinted in hot pink. The improvised possibilities are video-recorded for the actors to reexamine what was most successful.

Fritsch explains, »It’s as if I’m using different colours. The quick changes in theatrical style that the actors improvise could be described as a ›Theatre-mosaic‹. A play of perspectives, of colours, and their resulting different meanings. They are filters through which you can see the scene differently«.

»And how does the live music play into this game?«

»I like to quote Duke Ellington: »It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing«. The more that you pay attention to the music, to rhythm, the more one can pay attention to the content«.

»But if the actors are improvising freely on a stage, playing with different deliveries, and the music is running free… how do you balance all this improv with your desire to have a structured, well-made piece?« I ask.

»You are asking about boundaries, the limits of freedom in the piece. There are two levels to think about here: first speech, and then movement and the ability to react quickly. The actors have developed a choreographic catalogue from which they can draw. I think of the Commedia dell’arte. Arlecchino knows what his moves are and can use them when appropriate. I like to think of these limits as Lego, as pre-fabricated pieces that can be placed at will: Legoschauspielerei.«

But what do his actors think of this? Is there such a thing as too much freedom from the director?

I ask one. Annika Meier replies: »Freedom and direction are not mutually exclusive. The energy comes from the director, music and colleagues. All these influence my acting, and the remaining freedom is absolutely necessary to clear one’s mind.«

Meanwhile, Frisch replies that giving up control is, »Fun, but risky. But we have to try it out«.

»I imagine that it’s not just the actors that feel a sense of freedom«, I say.

»I am learning another way to work with actors, to give them a lot of trust. But I should add that in the other pieces, it was not a matter of only controlling them. In rehearsing, they must develop a conscious, practiced form, that is their own«.


»Amphitryon«, performed in 1668, was immediately a great success. It was Molière’s only foray into the world of Greek mythology, as recounted by Plautus, and the piece brings Gods to earth to meddle with mortals’ fates. Zeus wishing to make a sexual conquest takes the form of a husband who is away at war to seduce a newlywed wife. Mercury accompanies the King of the Gods, taking the form of the husband’s page. The comedy ensues when the two mortals return from war to find that doubles have taken their places.

»This is your second production from the French dramatic repertoire at the Schaubühne, after Feydeau’s »Champignol Despite Himself«, and you have already produced five Molière plays elsewhere. What in particular does this tradition offer you?« I ask Fritsch.

He replies, »The thing about these pieces is the swiftness they have. This pace is something that Feydeau inherited from Molière, in the dialogue and the plot. A lot is said and it’s said in a complicated way. That’s what’s so lovely about it«.

»I would like to explore the doubling of man by god, which is at the centre of the play – « I begin.

»Yes, the question of the oldest of comedic principles: the Doppelgänger. I think of it as the foundation (›Grundstruktur‹) of the comedy. It’s almost like a Pythagorean principle«.

When I think about the Doppelgänger, I can’t help but think of the Schubert song (and Heine’s poem) and its associations with angst and existential insecurity. The double confronts us with the problem of our ontology; it brings into question the presumption of the uniqueness of our self. There is the superstition that seeing the Doppelgänger foretells one’s death, as a fateful experience of observing oneself from outside – »an out of body« experience, so to speak – as if one were at one’s funeral. Yet, the Doppelgänger can also be a source of great comedy. So I ask, »How do we explain the comedic side of doubling?«

»When we laugh at the Doppelgänger, we are laughing at recognizing ourselves, and with this we find relief. From a distance, we can confront with lightness the basic problems that we have. It’s as if we are standing on a mountain, and looking down. Seeing all these people with their problems, we might see the sadness of human life. But we can also gain something from this distance«.

»It’s also the distance between humanity and the Gods, no?« I ask.

»Genau. This confrontation is appealing: that for the Gods, everything is permitted. And then we have these poor people beside them. But there is something beautiful in this piece in that we don’t choose between the pain of man and that of the gods. Even the gods can hurt and have problems, even if they are gods. There’s no great difference between man and mortal. Even the King can be hurt.« And here he refers to how Molière’s play is interpreted as a parody of Louis XIV, the god of his realm.

»The doubling of characters, of course, also provides opportunities for staging …«.

»I have worked with the question of doubling before, in my production of »A Comedy of Errors« for example. I find the question intriguing: rather than present characters that look the same, can we make the audience believe that two characters who look very different from one another are the same person? One big, one small, for example? Or when one goes out and comes back as the other? You can begin to play in ways with doubling that are not obvious. Our fantasy of what we wish to see can overpower us and it can be charming«.

As we walk back to the practice stage, we pass the actors all sitting on a picnic table in the car park. They face each other smoking, mirrored it seems in their gestures, all still in costume. »Time to get back to work« says one, and they all get up at once.

I’m on my way to the U-Bahn but I look back at them. There is the obvious thought about how the stage is a mirror to our experiences. But this observation is complicated if one thinks about selfhood in 17th-century France. Allow me a excursus into early-modern philosophy of identity. Blaise Pascal, for one, describes looking up from the street to an open window, where he sees a man. Is that the self up there? Is that contemplation of another self better than – as Descartes would have it – an endless game of teasing ourselves out from the inside? Do we not need a mirror to see ourselves?

<![CDATA[»Youth without God«. A Conversation with Thomas Ostermeier]]> Sat, 29 Jun 2019 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

I meet director Thomas Ostermeier in his office in the Schaubühne on Kürfürstendamm. He stands at the window, looking out to the street and waves to some of his actors – now out of costume – smoking on the pavement. Behind them pass a phalanx of children, led by their teachers, returning perhaps from an excursion. And I wonder: how different did the view from that same window look in 1933, the year this building’s architect Erich Mendelsohn fled from the Nazis? To what extent can the view to yesterday be harmonised with the Berlin of today? What happened to those children?

Thomas turns from the window, and we begin to speak about his new production »Youth without God«. The anti-fascistic novel of Ödön von Horváth, published in 1937, is often held up as a warped mirror to our present politics. And I wonder what choices the director faces when putting historical prose on the contemporary stage.

Joseph Pearson:
Let us begin directly with the most important words of the title, ›Youth‹ and ›God‹. What is the relationship between them?

Thomas Ostermeier:
Both terms appear to work in concert, but are more separate voices. On one hand, godlessness is attributed to the young people in the story. Horváth describes the age in which they live as the »Age of the Fish«; they are godless, not in a strictly Catholic sense, but rather in the loss of their morality and inner decency. When god does rear his head, it is almost always the Old Testament deity, a terrible god. Horváth allows this god to appear in the youth camp when the murder is revealed. On the other hand, the title also refers to the despair of the protagonist, the teacher, who is fraught in the questioning of his inner values, his decency, and the presence or absence of a god. It is out of an agnostic worldview that he experiences a religious awakening, an epiphany that moves him to tell the truth. He summons the courage to admit that he deviously and secretly forced open a safe-box to read the private diary of one of his students. He also knows more than the others: namely, that the person accused of murdering a classmate cannot be the murderer. His subsequent actions can be read as finding his way back to god. In our staging, we may have pushed these questions slightly to the background, but one can affirm that this was a »godless time«, »eine gottlose Zeit«.

Let’s put the question of religion in the background now and focus on the concept of ›Youth‹. Why is it compelling for you to direct a play about young people? Are young people really so different from adults when it comes to politics?

If the next generation has a more callous worldview than yours, is more hostile to difference than your generation, more disillusioned, then things really have fallen apart. The youth might be considered, since Plato, as having the reputation for being more depraved than their forebears, but youth can also promise the renewal of society, freeing it from abuse of power, corruption, or a deficit of democracy.  That is why the ’68 generation, Greta Thunberg today, or the students demonstrating on »Fridays for Future«, show their colours, and speak out vigorously against injustice. These are young people who are not yet economically dependent on a system that makes them fear losing their jobs. This is an issue of concern for Horváth: the teacher and the school director are both worried about their pensions and, as a result, are afraid to raise their voices. In »Youth without God«, the youth edge towards the abyss, rather than advancing a better future or bringing us to paradise.  And it must be said that, even though the novel was completed in 1936, it tells us something essential both about what happened in fascist Germany and is happening today with the emergence of European right-wing populism – both movements that promote young men. Remember that the leading figures of the Third Reich were all between 30 and 40 years old, with the exception of Hermann Göring. The movement was one of angry young men who wanted to »clean things up« – words that you may have also heard in this or the other speech by a right-wing populist today.

When we speak about Youth and God – about the moral structure of a »godless generation« – how easily can we transpose Horváth’s scenarios to today?

Not at all. I am not interested to use this piece as a kind of template imposed on present circumstances, where individual phenomena can be neatly transferred. That may have been interesting for my production of »Italian Night« or for Schnitzler’s »Professor Bernhardi«, but in this case, I wanted to try something different: I wanted to tell the story of how someone summons the strength to tell the truth, and how this positive role model can awake the spirit of resistance in others. And this, in a time when a high price was paid for this courage to tell the truth. If one did not pay with one’s life, one paid with social status, one’s job, or one’s reputation. This interests me, and, on this occasion, I deliberately tell a story of its time in its time.

You argue that you do not wish to make a direct comparison between our times and those times. But, nonetheless, you are dealing with many contemporary political problems with your adaptation of a novel from the 1930s. There is the expression that »history does not repeat but it rhymes«. Could you tell me about your method when reflecting on the historical elements of the play?

Think of the play as a parable, and one that negotiates questions of personal responsibility and individual courage. I hope that the questions that this history raises will be taken as opportunities to reflect more intensely on our own potential for individual courage in our present predicament. These are questions that we must ask ourselves again and again, always at the risk of realising that we have taken an opportunistic path as we negotiate the conflictual fissures of our times.

There is one peculiar character in the novel, a former teacher called Julius Caesar. He is obsessed with sex. In one passage of the novel, Caesar explains political standpoints based on the availability of sex to different generations. There is also a running theme of voyeurism in the novel. There is the desire of the teacher towards the students as well, which creates a problematic tension. All these sexual tensions – I imagine – provide opportunities for theatre …

Like any good author, Horváth knows about the power of Eros. For him, the erotic always has something of dependency, curse and obsession about it - for example, when Oskar says to Marianne in »Stories from the Vienna Woods«: »You will not evade my love!« Of course, this is a concept of love that points to desire-driven society that is unable to act out its urges. When instincts are suppressed and must be lived out within the narrow conception of a monogamous, bourgeois marriage, this leads inevitably to disaster. I’m not sure how many historians have inquired into repressed sexualities in the Third Reich, and why so much cruelty and sadism emerged from its leadership. What does all this have to do with one’s inner life being out of joint? I think we can make connections. Horváth speaks clearly about them in his book, especially in the figure of Julius Caesar.

Horváth was Hungarian, wrote in German, lived in three countries, grew up in a cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian milieu, and then his world was destroyed by National Socialism. From our present standpoint, is he not both a familiar and unsettling voice?

A utopian ideal for the future of Europe is often dispelled by the argument that Europe is made up of nations with numerous identities and linguistic boundaries that also function as state and national borders. But what is often overlooked, as you have just hinted, is that we have the precedent of a multi-ethnic state on European soil, where coexistence within an enormous landmass was possible: namely, Austro-Hungary. It was a state structure that included speakers of Austrian German, Czech, Croat, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Bosnian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian, Yiddish and other languages. The state did not collapse because of their cultural incompatibility, but because of its hierarchies and an undemocratic state structure, and the lack of self-determination for its individual citizens. I do not believe that we should give up on the ideal of a European state.

When the teacher in »Youth without God« says, »They are human also«, he is referring to Africans, and countering European racism towards them. Saying that people of different cultures and beliefs are »human also« seems obvious to us…

Naturally, it’s obvious…

And yet there are many people today who would resist this obvious statement, especially when voting for far-right political programs…

Indeed, what is obvious to some is not so obvious to others. And, of course, that the teacher rejects the norm has a curious resonance. Europe in 2019 is a canvas onto which many people from African countries project their aspirations. It’s the other way round for the teacher in »Youth without God«; he goes to Africa. There is this thought experiment: what would happen were we privileged Central Europeans forced to abandon Europe, in the event of a humanitarian or ecological catastrophe, fleeing to Africa by boat? We might be stuck in the Mediterranean in fishing boats procured in Marseilles from hawkers and criminals, as the North African states dispatch their Frontex units. One can hazard such a thought experiment.

The novel is often thought of as an anti-fascist manual, because of the humanist position of the teacher and because the teacher’s testimony encourages others to tell the truth and become politically motivated. Do you think the novel can be used as a handbook in this way?

The novel »Youth without God« is definitely not an anti-fascist manual – but rather exposes a dichotomy in the figure of Horváth. As we know from biographical work, Horváth was not the upstanding antifascist as is often claimed. Rather, Horváth fled to Austria, after he had to leave Murnau, after the Nazis laid waste to his parents’ house. He then made a short stay in Henndorf, close to Salzburg, in the literary ambit of Zuckmayer, around whom many German refugees had gathered. But he was then forced to return to Germany to earn money, simply to feed himself. There, he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote a few screenplays for some kitschy Nazi productions. In 1971, Paul Hörbiger testified under oath in court that at least two such films were penned by Horváth – of course, under a pseudonym. There exist also letters in which Horváth sought admission to the Nazi’s state writers’ guild (Reichsschriftkammer). Horvath’s dichotomy expresses itself in the character of the teacher in »Youth without God«: everything about fascism repels and irritates me, and brings me into opposition with it. But if I become a committed anti-fascist, then I will lose my job, my pension, my reputation, and I will be on the run, threatened life and limb, and will go hungry. We have documents in which Horváth states that he cannot write anymore because he is famished. My focus is precisely the teacher’s inner turmoil. The need to act accompanied by a lack of bravery for many reasons. This inner turmoil is, in the best sense, a description of the inner lives, or intimate landscapes, of many sensitive people in the Third Reich. It’s easy from today’s perspective to pass moral judgement.  But then, the price of moral decency was steep. This is, for me, the heart of the material, and for that reason, it is not an anti-fascist manual, but rather material that confronts us with these questions and at the same time describes very precisely the personalities, which surround this »hero«. He is a hero because he finally summons the courage of his convictions to leave everything behind and go to Africa.  

Your recent productions all have a contemporary impulse; they deal with the rise of the far-right in both contemporary settings and also historical ones. And so I would like to end our talk today with a simple question: why did you choose »Youth without God«? 

Of course, the piece is related to the tetralogy of my recent productions: »Professor Bernhardi«, »Returning to Reims« and »Italian Night«. Now we add to these »Youth without God«, in which I engage again with the resurgence of the far-right, always connected to the question, which part the left plays in making that resurgence possible.

But in dealing with this material, I also noticed how the question of individual responsibility, bravery and moral courage is becoming more and more important to me. And these are precisely the questions posed by »Youth without God«. I find this enormously compelling. And it is just the right moment to bring this material to the stage.

<![CDATA[A Glittering Abyss. »abgrund« at the Schaubühne]]> Thu, 28 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

The set gleams.

»›abgrund‹ is about the surface«, director Thomas Ostermeier tells me of the play written by Maja Zade, »It’s a play of light, a wealth of glitter; it’s the glitz on the surface«.

A kitchen bar, made of stainless steel, is the only piece of furniture that stands in the centre of a dark set. A minimal light hangs above the table; the wine glasses and kitchen utensils catch the glow. Behind, illuminated stark lettering announces the scenes, the many small conflicts to be played out around this expensive designer space.

I have never seen an Ostermeier production so stripped of furniture; but there is enough here, in Nina Wetzel’s stage design, to create a world familiar to us: an apartment in Berlin, in the year 2019. It is the most minimal of backdrop to set in relief Ostermeier’s ›Kammerspiel‹.

During a break in the rehearsal, I am drawn to the stage. I sniff a wine bottle. Is it real Chardonnay, or water? The red wine looks authentic. But it smells of blackcurrant. There are half-eaten bowls of chocolate pudding littered on the reflective steel surface. A water carafe stands full of colourful crystals.

»The water tastes better with the crystals in it«, actor Laurenz Laufenberg tells me.

»Maybe they infuse the water with minerals – « I suggest, not believing in any more spiritual explanation.

»Ah, Quatsch! du spinnst wohl«, Alina Stiegler says – don’t be daft.

»The food is all real«, Laurenz goes on, »There’s salad, lamb chops. The pudding is delicious, but too much of it can put you to sleep«.

I ask him, »Are you really eat all of it during the production?«

»Of course!«

»Some actors don’t like too much food in their stomachs«.

»But it’s in the scene!« he tells me, and I tell Laurenz he’s being very »method-y« today.

I return to my seat in Saal B and on-stage the scene resumes. I start to feel strange. I can’t help now but feel that my conversation with Laurenz at the kitchen bar was theatrical. The actors are involved in the same kind of colloquial talk. Moritz Gottwald and Christoph Gawenda discuss the quality of products at Tchibo; Jenny König remarks you can always find a little something to buy there. The kitchen-chatter interlaces convincingly. They are even talking at the same volume as Laurenz and I did; all the actors wear microphones, so their speaking voices can be used on stage.

But I know that what is now happening on stage is not the same as my conversation a minute ago. If reality were reproduced exactly on stage, we wouldn’t believe it. The talent of ›Kammerspiel‹ is to create a fiction we believe is real.

I ask Ostermeier how he achieves this effect.

He says, »A lot of it is about rhythm. These past weeks I have trained actors, with exercises, to observe how language is rhythmically composed in real life. Most of the time, reality is faster and more structured. There are more ups and downs in volume. It is more musical than 90% of what is happening on stage. I try to build up the awareness of that difference. But I really didn’t need to force the actors: they were completely obsessed. Everyone, since rehearsing, has listened differently when they are invited to a dinner«.

»Presumably it helps that these actors have all worked together before«, I suggest.

»You would be lost without the spirit of an ensemble. Most of them know each other and have built a level of trust that can only happen over years. They know that a performance is created by the interaction between them, and wouldn’t happen if each had her solo. They are used to this kind of acting: they know it can work, to make the audience believe they are not performing«.

Maja Zade’s text, in Ostermeier’s words, is »colloquial«, about the surface of an evening when dinner guests make small talk.

Thomas tells me, »I am obsessed with realistic behaviour and colloquial conversation. I must say it’s rarely done in a good way in German theatre, and directors in contact with contemporary writing tend to overdo what is happening. But, in the English tradition, there is a beautiful history of well-made colloquial plays. I am trying to go farther than I have before, by using in-ear microphone headsets. In the best of cases, you actually feel invited to dinner, like you are sitting with the other guests. And if the actors don’t need to project their voices, they can really imitate the subtleties of small talk and create intimacy. These headphones also allow you to work with frequencies and sounds you cannot normally use in theatre. Since there are fifty-three [sic!] scene changes, there is room for an expansive sound design, and for music, which both lend another layer of horror and strangeness to this world«.

Listening to Zade’s text on stage, I think back to the visual poetry of it. I remember speaking to one of the actors when she first received the script, and she told me: it’s very beautiful but I don’t know when to speak! Indeed, the script does not assign lines to particular voices but reads instead as a long prose-poem, with a hermetic elegance on the page. Here is just one example of a scene:



if bettina had gone into the room a second earlier

if pia hadn’t woken up

if gertrud had woken up

if pia had stayed at the table

if the baby monitor had been louder

if she

if she

if he

if the two of them

if you

if i



Ostermeier tells me, »I loved the text the first time I read it. I had the same experience you seem to have had: it’s very poetic, very clear, well composed, you might even talk about a long poem. What I find a little bit sad, honestly, is that by having to make a choice about who is saying what, you end up with a well-made play all the time, and some of that beauty vanishes. At the same time, you get something in return: it is as if an animal has been bred from it. The text gains breath, you can see what is really happening – even more – in a three-dimension space where more than one storyline is told and we slowly begin to understand the catastrophe at the centre of one of them«.

This catastrophe – which we won’t spell out here – might be read as the »abgrund« of the play, a word that in German both suggests the precipice and the abyss. It’s a piece that invites interpretation.

I certainly am tempted to give a hasty reading to everything I see: the use of a gauze screen in front of the actors, and another one behind them, allows for double-layered video projection; they suggest to me the multiplicity of possible interpretations. The projections also give a sense of recession, that there are several levels to the play’s reality. Often the projections are out-of-focus, lending a sense of ambiguity. Meanwhile, the minimalism of the stage allows the darkness from off-stage to creep in. I can’t help but interpret that, here, we feel the abyss which is the play’s title. But I shake my head, who am I to say?

Ostermeier tells me, »I try not to know at every moment where the play is leading. Sometimes, I try more and more to get closer to a truth inside the play, which neither Maja nor myself knows. I cannot tell you what it is going to tell in the end: whether it more Bourdieu, or more Lacan, or neither of these«.

French theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of »Habitus« and cultural capital are one lens through which to understand the action. Bourdieu argues that a person’s cultural capital – which allows them social mobility in a class society – is connected to their ›Habitus‹: the knowledge of cultural markers they have inherited, the objects of cultural value they have collected in their homes (like an Eames chair), or their institutional position in society. Lacan’s notion of the ›Real‹, meanwhile, is perhaps suggested by the abyss in the play, that which escaped the symbolic, and cannot be reduced to meaning. Perhaps both theorists share their value as cultural capital themselves: drop either name at a dinner party and see what happens to your stock price.

Ostermeier tells me how cultural capital works at such an evening: »We feel the familiarity of being invited over to friends for dinner, and they are cooking. But you feel that no one is really communicating. Everything they say has the same value, whether you are talking about refugees or truffles in the soup. During rehearsals, we got to thinking about Bourdieu and the competitive exchange of cultural capital in social situations.  Who has the best story, the most incredible news, the most shocking gossip, or specialised knowledge about pop culture, art, design, or politics? All these subjects have the same value because it’s not about digging deep into issues, but a stock market about coming out the best«.

»Is there a reason this competition takes place in a kitchen in Prenzlauer Berg?« I ask.

Ostermeier throws up his hands, »Prenzlauer Berg! You know, honestly, I’m fed up with it. Already in 2002, with my production of ›A Doll’s House‹ we were talking about this world. No one said the word ›Prenzlauer Berg‹, but I was interested then in the new bourgeoisie, ›die Neue Mitte‹: people who dreamed of a career in start-ups during the social re-invention of Germany, as we belatedly absorbed Reaganomics and Thatcherism«.

»It’s a young urban professional world of people with money and distinguished in their aesthetic choices, always knowing ›le dernier cri‹: be it in art, theatre or music. This was something new in Germany. Germany always had rich people, but they rarely cared about being contemporary: they wanted their villa, their Bentley, to go hunting, to live a traditional old-money lifestyle. Now, new money no longer tries to imitate these people. Instead, they buy a loft in a former industrial quarter, living a life you could just a well find in Sydney, London or Vancouver. They show they are wealthy in different ways: by ordering champagne with their pizza. A lot of these people in Prenzlauer Berg bought their apartments with money from their parents, but have an identity problem. They are performing to be Prenzlauer Bergers. But they don’t know what they are performing, as they try to build a different world from their parents. The biggest accusation is that they are doing exactly the same thing that their parents did, except with different clothes and music. And they are repeating their parents’ patriarchal patterns, with the wife at home raising the kids. They care about cultural capital in the same way – as people did in bourgeois 19th-century circles – but they are creating different markers«.

I add, »But behind this surface of cultural competition there is the precipice, the abyss, perhaps even the ›Real‹ – «

Ostermeier replies, »It is not that the characters understand that there is an abyss, or that they are constantly trying to avoid looking at. What Maja does with the catastrophe in the play is to show how these people are unable to handle or confront it. It shows their emptiness and insecurity, their inability to deal humanely with one another. The question of empathy is central to the play. The play does not celebrate misanthropy, but rather mirrors it. And by holding the mirror, she wants to overcome this behaviour. The catastrophe could be many things: a terror attack, an illness, a bus accident. But that’s not the point of the play. The point is to confront the character with something she cannot put into a frame, where there is no one to call guilty or to blame for what has happened, even when four lives are destroyed as a result«.

<![CDATA[Training for the Future. Three Débuts at FIND 2019]]> Mon, 25 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 By Joseph Pearson

What’s in a début, when one steps onto a new stage? ›Début‹ is a rich word in French: ›débuter‹ means to start, but the etymology from the Old French is from the ballgame boules, or pétanque, referring to both the action of first throwing the ball, but also the displacement of the other player’s ball (›de‹ and ›but‹ meaning ›away from the goal‹). The word suggests both the starting point and the future.

Three companies – from China, Canada (Québec), and the United Kingdom – appear for the first time at the 2019 FIND festival. The ›début‹ is not just for the visiting theatre companies, but also for the audience listening to new voices. Even when the themes are familiar, they are filtered through different languages and cultural expectations, challenging our expectations, perhaps even changing our minds.

What these débuts all share is that they have documentary concerns about how we will live together, cooperate, or interact competitively in the future. The pieces reflect on fame, popular culture and social change in China; technophobia and body enhancement; and rapacious individualism and the future of the welfare state. As each starts its ›partie de boules‹ with us, we might wonder whether the ›lancer‹ will reach its desired position, and what will be knocked out of the way.


Last fall, the Schaubühne’s debut tour to China was cut short. This gives an even greater significance to welcoming a Chinese theatre group to Berlin to début at the FIND festival.

Director Li Jianjun and the New Youth Group are a rare voice of documentary theatre in the People’s Republic. He tells me that »everything that I do in theatre reflects on how China is changing«. His work has developed from interpretations of the vernacular fiction of Lu Xun (»A Madman’s Diary«, 2011) to documentary pieces which bring to the stage the voices of Chinese citizens affected by the country’s rapid industrialization and urbanization (»One Fine Day«, 2013). Another work, »25,3 km« (2013-14), was set on a moving bus through the transformed suburbs of a Chinese metropolis, as passengers reflected on their relationship to a changing urbanscape and society. »Peasants and farmers are abandoning their land for the city, and their relationship to their new home is a mix of love and hatred«, he explains.

The director tells me too about his own background, how he also came to the city: »Personally, I am a migrant, I went through the college entrance exam and came to Beijing. My father thought it was Chairman Mao who changed his life, and without him he would have been a farmer his whole life. After the Chinese Revolution, he became involved in the Communist party and believed in the story and world of Chairman Mao. But before my father died, he was disappointed by the reality. I came from the North West of China, but I rarely go back there. I really wonder what my relationship is between myself and my origin in the north of China«.

The director might feel estranged from humble origins, but everyday people remain the mainstay of his artistic production. »Popular Mechanics«, coming to FIND 2019, focuses on their experiences of popular culture. Li Jianjun advertised in the media, and online, asking applicants to send a video clip of themselves doing a favourite monologue. »We were very curious how desperately they want to be on stage and perform in front of others, how strong their desire to act was«, he tells me. The chosen performers were then given the opportunity to interpret popular characters from streaming media, film, theatre, or literature, on-stage. But since these performers are non-professional actors, the line between their performance and everyday life easily blurs.

»How do you work with the actors?« I ask.

»I would say that it’s an idea of zero theatre, of a minimal set or props, even stories. I am always moving towards reduction. Meanwhile, I do not change the way that the actors and actresses perform, but want them to preserve their individual form of self-expression«.

»Could you tell me about the title?«

»The title is a faithful translation from written Chinese«, the director tells me, »The piece is ›popular‹ because all the actors are average Joes who come from outside theatre, and because the content derives from popular culture. They express themselves through a popular idiom: some from pop culture of the 50s and 60s, when foreign dubbed films were popular in China and became a cultural environment; but also from the 90s and later. Our actors tend to choose to perform what was most popular in the years in which they were growing up. One of our older actors chose Communist revolutionary films, praising Communist culture and the USSR. They are choices that all exist in the memory of the Chinese people«.

»One of the risks of when one débuts a piece in a foreign country is that the audience has a different cultural memory and associations. Are you worried that the Chinese popular culture references will be lost on a German audience?« I ask.

Li Jianjun replies, »It’s a good question. I’m curious how a German audience will see this piece – I feel a real sense of anticipation of how a Western audience will respond. After the year 1978, when China started reforming and opening up, we introduced many dubbed Western films, mostly coming from Socialist countries, but also from elsewhere. These films, including Western films, left their traces and created a foundation for Chinese popular culture in that era. Because popular culture in China since the reform has included Western symbols and signs, there’s a point for connection«.

»One thing the Western audience will be wondering about is the question of censorship in China. I wonder if this is a challenge for documentary theatre which tries to be a reflection of the lived world?«

The director replies, »First of all, a large proportion of theatres are not only controlled by the government, but national, regional and provincial theatres are also owned entirely by the government. Theatrical creations are not totally independent artistically. The audience for theatre in China is also not huge, but rather limited. As far as I know, very few people are doing documentary theatre. For that reason, theatre today in China has a very limited influence. The biggest change in Chinese theatre in the past decade is that it is becoming more and more commercialised and focused on business success. This poses a challenge for independent documentary theatre.«

»If documentary theatre is rare in China, how do your audiences react?«

»Some of the audience resists it. They have an idea of what theatre should be like, and our theatre isn’t similar to it, so they don’t like it. But this is a very small section of the audience. Most enter the theatre and see that there are ordinary people telling stories on stage. They can sympathise with these actors and issues. This is the influence we are looking for. The responses I receive from the audience are divided depending on whether they are frequent theatre goers or have no previous experience at all«.

»Which is more receptive? The ones with more or less experience?« I ask.

Li Jianjun smiles, »The people with no theatre experience! I like them better. While those with experience often start to make judgements, the others are more devoted to the experience«.


A début of a different sort awaits with the French-Canadian production »Post Humains« by actor and co-director Dominique Leclerc. Montréal may not seem like such a cultural jump from Berlin – and Leclerc’s journalist partner and husband Dennis Kastrup is from Berlin – but the subject matter can be controversial for new audiences: bio-hacking, implants, and self-optimizing technology in cyborgs (who build mechanics into the body to enhance sensorial capacities and performance) and transhumanists (who believe humanity can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations through technology). For many, talking about these new innovations – and the jump into the world of body manipulation – is itself a début.

Leclerc came to the subject because she has been dependent herself, for more than a decade, on technology, to treat a medical condition. This dependence, and her curiosity, brought her into contact with the cyborg and transhumanist scene.

»The cyborgs that I met were very DIY, open-source, with a mentality that is very progressive. My piece is the result of the four years since my discovery of the cyborg and transhumanist scene. When meeting the founder of the Cyborg e.V. Berlin, Enno Park, I realized that he is hearing impaired, but with implants he can focalise on a conversation, and this posed for me the question of the limits between curative medicine and medicine that actually improves our capabilities. I remember how my husband reacted when I attended my first cyborg meeting. It was one of fear. Now, I want to take my audience down the same road, to get beyond that fear. The more often I met these people, the more I understood their motives. The more we go forward, the more the feeling of fear stabilizes. We get beyond the theory and leave the theatre feeling legitimated to talk about these issues. The piece is about testing our frontiers.«

I comment that »Many people are hesitant, or condemn, implanting our bodies with chips, or enhancing our senses through technological manipulation. Where do you think this condemnation comes from?«

Leclerc replies, »There is religious baggage, but there is also something I still can’t fully explain. Many people take the drug Ritalin, for example, to perform better. It’s a form of transhumanism. But they accept it perhaps because it’s a pill, because a pharmaceutical company makes it, and because the product can be bought legally. In Canada, we have recently legalized cannabis, and I know people who before that would take pain medication and never touch weed. Then suddenly cannabis is legalized and those people’s opinions have changed. Or think about how I use my mobile phone. If I lose it, I don’t even know my husband’s phone number, it’s impossible to reach him. Part of my mind is now in the machine, even if that outsourcing is not visible. Nobody thinks this is weird, but people who enhance their bodies in more visual ways are thought of as freaks. People have problems with visible enhancements, but the changes that happen invisibly are happening already. These are all things I wish to question«.

»Is not the problem also because – in an era of climate change and privacy concerns – many people have lost faith in technological progress? They have lost their optimism?«

»We say we are no longer optimistic about technology, but in practice we accept its advancements, either because it provides enjoyment or makes our lives easier (even when in the end our lives often accelerate as a result). And when it comes down to health, people who are healthy might find it easy to oppose transhumanism. But if you fall ill, suffer a life shock, it’s rare that you will say no to a pill that will help or cure you. When you are getting older, you want to be younger. When you suffer, and there’s a solution, you take it«.

»You and your husband implanted yourselves with RFID microchips on-stage, before an audience. How do you expect different audiences to react?«

»The level of resistance depends on the cultural context. In France, the debate is largely condemnatory and critical. Transhumanists are awaited by fervent philosophers. But in Berlin, I’ve been to an event, hosted by a communications company, where implants were given away for free. And it was super commercial. I felt like I was 14-years old being offered drugs. Will I do it? Will I try it? I saw myself, this reaction, and afterwards thought it makes no sense to participate«.

»But Berliners are perhaps more worried about the privacy issues, and being hacked – « I suggest.

»There’s, of course, a big difference between an RFID chip and one that has GPS and is biometric. That scares me. But people are afraid of being tracked by the chip, even if it doesn’t have a GPS, when meanwhile they have a phone in their pocket that tracks them everywhere they go. In Sweden, for example­­ – where they apparently don’t like cash and prefer cards, and have more confidence in government and the system – the idea of chips is more popular. In Québec, a lot of these questions are not even in the air. Then again, we need to remember that every audience is different, and the public in Montréal is very different from small towns where I’ve toured«.

»Why did you implant yourself?«

»There are many reasons why. It’s a symbol. I wanted to pass from observation to experimentation. I wanted to call attention to the fact that this is the first form of technology that is being inserted into the body without a curative purpose; it is time to be conscious of these rapid changes in our society and question them now. There is also a poetic value in doing something that is disputed by people, to bring attention to it. I want to bring them into a grey zone, to create a space for the extremes of opinion on this subject, even for those who condemn. But no matter how much people oppose this technology, the developments will go on without them«.


James Yeatman is no stranger to the Schaubühne (he co-directed »Beware of Pity« with Simon McBurney), but this is the first time that his theatre group Kandinsky, produced by co-writer Lauren Mooney, steps onto the theatre’s stage. The British group also arrives at a tense new time in British-European relations. Brexit was propelled largely by populism and discontent, in an era of a deteriorating social contract in Britain. The production »Trap Street« might even provide something of a warning for Berlin’s future, as it struggles with the phenomenon of gentrification. The piece tells the story of a social housing block (or »Estate«) in London’s East End, which faces demolition. It is a symbol for the destruction of a post-war ideal of social democracy.

»One cannot help but think of the June 2017 Grenfell Towers fire when one thinks about a tower block and social neglect – « I suggest to Yeatman, »Is this what you had in mind when you developed your production?«

»Grenfell happened after we began working on the show and put a huge weight of responsibility on what we were doing, which was frightening. This was a huge tragedy with its own highly specific causes which are being investigated in a large public enquiry right now. The story of Grenfell has never been ours to tell. Indeed, we are careful to show that all the events in our play take place before the Grenfell fire in summer 2017. But I would say that the reason Grenfell became such a politically sensitive story in British culture – as opposed to ›just‹ a tragedy – was because to many people it seemed to be the terrible apotheosis of inequalities of wealth and access to housing which had been building up in London – and across the UK – for several decades, and that’s what we were investigating. The aim of our show was to chart the collapse of the postwar housing dream, to see if the stigma it attracted – as dirty places where the architecture had created criminality and deprivation among its residents – was fair, and if what’s been created to replace it is worse«. 

»You personalize this story around the experiences of a working-class woman in an Estate – «

»That’s right. We chart a woman from one of the first families to move into a fictional estate, which is loosely modelled on Thamesmead, once a bold and new housing experiment in Southeast London until the money dried up. They never built any shops there. Increasingly it was where the government dumped people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere. Its reputation was sealed when Stanley Kubrick filmed Clockwork Orange there in the 70s. Our piece is modelled on that sad story, from the utopian dream of public housing to it being a place for pariahs, with the twist that they are now all worth shitloads of money, even as they are being demolished«. 

»Are there turning points in the chronology of this story that you tell?« 

»Yes, the key thing is a policy that happened in Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s, called ›Right-To-Buy‹. It gave people the right to buy their council houses at a discounted rate based on how long you’d lived there. It was for many a popular policy that gave people what is a now a highly lucrative foot on the property ladder, but it also completely shattered the communal ideal of social housing and increased the stigma on those who couldn’t buy their homes. Moreover, it reduced the number of homes available for social rent and has led to the housing shortage in London today (which is often used for anti-immigrant rhetoric – that immigrants are claiming the fewer and fewer council properties, while people who grew up in the city can’t get access to them). I’d argue that more than any other government policy, Right-To-Buy changed the social contract in Britain, promoting the individual over the group. Our show hinges around that moment, that policy«. 

»Most people in Berlin rent their homes. The importance of home ownership in Britain is hard to understate – «

»Absolutely. The ownership of a home and what home you live in, in Britain, is a really hard marker of class, and of your position in society. It can seep into any conversation if you live in London. You can make huge assumptions about background from where you live, how the area has gentrified, what type of place you live in. People are very defensive and rightly sensitive about answering such questions. It’s a huge minefield. The idea of owning your own home and this weird expression, that an ›Englishman’s home is his castle‹, is built into the British psyche«.

»You have named the council estate in your piece after Jane Austen: ›Austen Estate‹. Why is that?«

»In Jane Austen, people are obsessed about houses. It is the whole crisis of the novel, ›Persuasion‹, that they will lose their family seat. Estates are often named after novelists. There is the Dickens Estate in Southeast London, all names after different Dickens characters. I thought it would be inconceivable if an Austen-character Estate didn’t exist either, named after the country houses in her novels. And if you watch a Jane Austen TV adaptation on a Sunday night – usually they are 6-parts long – it’s all house porn. And, oddly for Jane Austen, these miniseries show much bigger houses than in the books. Calling the Estate after her seemed a fine touch«. 

»Is it strange to come back to Berlin right now, at a time when Brexit features so strongly in the news, a situation that many ascribe to the breakdown of social welfare in Britain?«

James replies, »This is a really complicated question to answer. Personally, I find Brexit an absolute tragedy. I grew up in an integrated Europe, to me it’s never been anything but a good thing. I’ve had the privilege of working here at the Schaubuhne on ›Beware of Pity‹, and I’m so excited to bring this show over now, but that excitement is really tinged by the shame of the anti-European stance of Britain at the moment«.

»The strange thing about Brexit is realizing how over half of Britain seem to see these opportunities as a bad thing, and see my pro-European-ness as the arrogant attitude of a privileged Londoner – I woke up in June 2016 and realized that half the country seemed to hate what I believed in most strongly. It’s sobering that the country can apparently change its self-image so quickly from the openness and diversity of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony to what to me feels like the much more insular view of UKIP and Brexit in only four years«. 

»Yet the sense of disenfranchisement that motored Brexit lies in the issues we’re trying to look at in this show – in the gradual unpicking of the social contract that’s taken place over the last 30 years, of the way in which big money has hollowed out people’s homes and just turned them into houses: property which can be bought and sold for increasingly crazy figures«.


All these directors, débuting at the Schaubühne, stand inside their drawn circles, looking towards their goals.

I think of Li Jianjun’s bus coasting through the periphery of a Chinese city. Its passengers, who were until recently farmers, stare out at the mass projects of urbanization with a sense of both amazement and anger. They then retreat into the comfort of familiar popular films and past anthems. I wonder how different the expression might be on the faces of those required to implant new technology in their bodies simply to care for their health. Or what agency and power must be felt by transhumanists who believe they can harness this technology – like positivists of yesteryear – in times to come? Britain meanwhile negotiates a poorer and more provincial future, a warning to Berliners as their neighbourhoods gentrify, outpricing inhabitants at an astonishing rate.

An aspect of international theatre that one can most appreciate – because these productions come from other cultural paradigms with often different assumptions – is its capacity to displace and knock us in new directions.

It must be asked (not to belabour the metaphor too much): after the ball is thrown, have we really moved away from our goal (›de-but‹)? What do we gain when looking back at causes of our predicaments; the present explained by digging through the wreckage, an archaeology of ruined dreams – be it the utopian visions of Mao or the post-war welfare state? As these productions play for the first time at an international festival, the audience too is given the opportunity to train for the future.

Translations from the French by Joseph Pearson

Schaubühne – Theory