I Beg Your Pardon: A Survey of the British Perspective on German Theatre

Pretzel or Royal headgear. Andre Schurrle moving to Chelsea. How to properly translate Paddington Bear. Just a few of the highly controversial debates causing sparks to fly between the Germans and the Brits these days.

Yet tonight sees the Theatertreffen premiere of Night Train, a Schauspiel Köln and 59 Productions adaptation of Friederike Mayröcker’s poetry which dispels any doubt that a German-British collaboration is not only possible, but capable of being “remarkable.”

And despite being by definition the most German of German theatre festivals, Night Train’s director Katie Mitchell and dramaturgs Duncan Macmillan and Lyndsey Turner aren’t the first Brits to be included at the Theatertreffen. Last year alone featured three British playwrights: Dennis Kelly opened the Stückemarkt with the memorable speech “Why political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time,” Pamela Carter nabbed the Stückemarkt commission prize (see the result for yourself on Friday 17th at the Maxim Gorki Studio), and Simon Stephens just missed out on a coveted Top Ten spot in the line-up with the German-British-Estonian production of his Three Kingdoms.

Clearly the Brits are infiltrating. But what do they really think of German theatre? I asked directors, playwrights, critics, actors and academics from across the UK to answer four simple questions. Here’s what they said:

WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU THINK OF WHEN YOU HEAR THE WORDS „GERMAN THEATRE“?

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“Intelligent, visceral, challenging and risk-taking.” – Ben Power, Associate Director at the National Theatre

“A very long and stolid production of Julius Caesar by Peter Stein in a tractor factory outside Edinburgh, about which I wrote probably my most succinct review ever, passing a note to a colleague that read “give us a bloody interval, Stein”. It may have been an aircraft hangar rather than a tractor factory (other reports claim so). After that Brecht, Schiller, Wedekind and strongly conceptual staging.” – Nick Curtis, Journalist at the Evening Standard

“Something visual more than it is psychological. Something bold. Something kinetic. Something visceral. Something in which actors aren’t necessarily pretending to be other people than the people they are in real life.” – Simon Stephens, Playwright

“Increasingly, ‘Simon Stephens’.” – Pamela Carter, Playwright

CAN YOU DESCRIBE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE OF GERMAN THEATRE?

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“Peter Stein’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the Schaubühne in 1989. This was poetic realism at its finest. When, in the first act, the nursery-shutters were flung open and we saw a profusion of white cherry-blossom, I understood, as if for the first time, why the Gayev family couldn’t bear to leave the estate.” – Michael Billington, Critic at The Guardian

“Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet at the Barbican. It was like nothing I’ve seen before, a Hamlet who not only came across as a mad character but also an actor who felt like he was on the verge of his own mental breakdown. Stuffing handfuls of dirt into his mouth and shouting at the audience at how real all of this was, it shook me to my core. Ostermeier got rid of all the fluff of Shakespeare and told the story at the heart of the work.” – Jake Orr, Critic and Founder of A Younger Theatre

“I saw Three Kingdoms by Simon Stephens at the Lyric last year, which was directed by Sebastian Nübling. What was so remarkable about the production was that every scene was somehow massively inventive. You were overwhelmed by beautiful images – trafficked women as deer, women appearing and disappearing out of suitcases. As the narrative gradually fractured the aesthetics became more and more central to the piece – the delivery of the performance seemed of much greater importance than the specifics of the story.” – Edward Kiely, Writer

WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE GERMAN THEATRE-MAKER, DIRECTOR, ACTOR OR PLAYWRIGHT?

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“Probably still Pina Bausch if that’s allowed. With Café Müller alone, I think she changed theatre for the next fifty years.” – Andrew Haydon, Critic

“Thomas Ostermeier – his Hamlet was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre; forcing me to totally reimagine my relationship to the Shakespeare, whilst also making something utterly new and utterly of itself.” – Ben Power

“I thought Lars Eidinger was astonishing in Ostermeier’s ‘Hamlet’.” – Pamela Carter

“Right now, probably Dimiter Gotscheff (if I’m allowed choose a Bulgarian). The movement of the actors‘ bodies in space is more deft than with any other director I’ve seen.” – Jeff James, Director

“Without question BRECHT. Enormously influential. When the Berliner Ensemble came to England in the fifties they invigorated British playwriting and design, particularly at the Royal Court and Theatre Royal Stratford East.” – Robin Hooper, Actor and Playwright

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GERMAN AND BRITISH THEATRE?

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“Money, time, ensemble, security.” – Sue Dunderdale, Director

“The scale of ambition – there is good work in the UK, but so much of it seems to be satisfied with fighting yesterday’s battles, rather than searching for new theatrical forms.” – Jeff James

“Subsidy is the chief difference between the two theatres. In Germany, it is regarded as a necessity: in the UK as a privilege.” – Michael Billington

“German theatre is more aesthetically attuned: very physical and visual.” – Fintan Walsh, Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies, Birkbeck

“There was a German performer in Three Kingdoms (Steven Scharf). He did some fantastically physical work that was nothing to do with the text, but added hugely to his menace and status. I don’t think many British actors would have done this. I think British theatre is too married to the text, and German theatre not married enough.” – Jack Monaghan, Actor

“Our respective ideas about the value of culture: Germany funds its theatres properly. German theatres treat their actors like they are respected workers and not prostitutes. German theatre also understands that there is more than one way to stage a text; that the author’s word is not the end of the argument; that a piece of theatre is an art form created from layer upon layer of responses, rather than (at worst in Britain) something assembled by following a set of instructions on a piece of paper.” – Andrew Haydon

“In Germany, it seems like if you make work that breaks the rules you get plaudits. In the UK, you get dropped.” – Edward Kiely

“The money. Because of the greater seriousness with which theatre, and all art, is valued in Germany over the UK. In Germany it strikes me theatre is used as a serious means of helping a culture understand itself. In the UK it always one step away from entertainment.” – Simon Stephens

“I think it is attitude, of theatre-makers, but mostly of audience. German audiences want and demand more, they are willing to experiment and be pushed into territories they’re not used to.” – Jake Orr

“The UK theatre could learn a lot from the courage of German theatre. The courage to abandon literary and theatrical precedent in order to pursue the new, the courage to give artists the space and resources to take risks and challenge form. That courage, though, has grown in a context of long-term subsidy and state support of which the UK theatrical community is rightly envious. If UK theatre seems more crowd-pleasing, it is because of commercial imperatives. I would argue, though, that this breeds a healthy interest in the audience which, if combined with the German attitude to risk would make for a potent combination.” – Ben Power

So there we have it. The most-mentioned German name in the survey by far was Thomas Ostermeier, for which part of the credit must go to the Schaubühne’s friend in London, international theatre host the Barbican (their Fräulein Julie just finished its run there). But does the image that’s being portrayed truly reflect the German theatre scene? Let the debates rage – God knows it’ll be infinitely more interesting than Heidi Klum versus Mel B.

  1. Really interesting piece. Simon Stephens‘ quote about Actors playing/being an extension of themselves/their lives on Stage is very U.S. in approach (no bad thing at all).
    Do wonder if we’re more than a touch misguidedly & crestively-speaking unhelpfully arrogant about our place on World Theatre & feel we haven’t much to learn from anyone – especially European Theatre.
    One almost gets the feeling that our ‚liberal‘ British Theatre scene is actually very Euro-sceptic Artistically-speaking
    We are wrong, so very, if
    British Theatre does feel this.
    Personally I thought Simon and Sebastian Nubling’s „Three Kingdoms“ at London’s Lyric Theatre was one of the most extraordinary, visionary, visceral, impactful & thus memorable evenings in the Theatre I’ve ever had.
    Theatre is an entirely shared experience – from both the Creative as well as Audience perspective, but also in the International/Global sense. Look how cherished and how often Chekhov, Ibsen & Moliere are staged in the UK. But I think the British Theatre ’scene‘ has a resistance toward European/Int’l productions of even these, let alone New Writing.
    This is something we need to look at, debate & address. For our own Creative sakes as well as Theatre in the globally communal sense.

      • Interesting, but I don’t think the figures actually bear out your conclusion: there are a lot of Buechner, Goethe, Hauptmann, Kleist, Lessing, and Schiller productions on that list, and modern German authors such as Handke and Jelinek as well. Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen are unusual, I suspect, in that they have a large number of plays to their names that remain in the modern German repertoire — that’s not quite true of any single German author, but collectively, German classical and early 19th-century authors have outnumbered Shakespeare (with about 55 picks); German 19th- and early-20th-century authors at least come close to Ibsen and Chekhov, and Beckett is the only non-German post-war author with any significant number of TT selections.

        Kind of astonishing: the only Pinter played in 1966. No Stoppard, no Caryl Churchill! (Two Sarah Kane shows, though.)

      • really interesting! but then perhaps there’s another thing to think about – translation. I’ve been told that great translations of Shakespeare have meant that he has pretty much felt like part of the German canon for a very long time, so maybe the standard of translation shouldn’t be underestimated as a factor here

        • completely agree. the well-known, if not always perfect, Shakespeare translations/adaptations from the Romantics (Wieland for example) are probably the reason for his popularity. Translations of contemporary German plays into English, on the other hand, are relatively uncommon, with the notable exception of Schimmelpfennig.

    • not sure I completely understand what you take to be U.S. about Stephens‘ quote. U.K. theatre does seem to have been inspired by U.S. theater recently in a commercial sense (musical adaptations of movies etc.) But both traditions have been steeped in psychological realism for a while.

  2. When I saw Elfriede Jelinek’s „Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall.“ I had to think of you and your text on the translation of plays and surtitles you wrote last year… the Jelinek-text did not translate at all, all it’s original ambiguity was gone out of the window… poor Kyoko had to use all her imagination to figure out what could be meant. Maybe that’s why Ostermeier is so popular in Britain: His work translates. Even without surtitles.

    • I think there’s some truth to that. It also helps that Ostermeier’s work is, broadly speaking, so anchored in psychological realism. Not much of a leap from English mainstream acting to what Ostermeier’s actors do.

      • And he was also working with a lot of contemporary British drama (Kane, Ravenhill’s „Shopping and Fucking“, Enda Walsh’s „Disco Pigs“, Caryl Churchill), so one can say that the British like the German directors that put on stage British drama?

  3. The thing I most admire about German theatre-makers is that they would be likely to approach this kind of question with a great deal more honesty, and not witter on like a bunch of peace ambassadors. To read the above you would think German theatre was universally adored in this country. The truth is, to British eyes and ears a lot of German theatre is unappealing, often coming across as wildly self-indulgent, with an over-reliance on naked women and shouting men. Why, if German theatre is so wonderful, are German theatres stuffed with plays by Ravenhill, Stephens, Kelly, etc? I’m sure the British people interviewed above mean well. And some of them, like Andrew Haydon, actually mean what they’re saying. But why not be honest? We make the kind of theatre we make because that’s the kind of theatre we like.

    • „Stuffed“? A wee bit of an exaggeration, no? Also, interesting slippage between drama and theatre.

      More to the point, I’ve seen thirteen plays in Berlin in the last twelve days. Two of them featured brief nudity; in the first instance, that was called for in the 1931 text of the play; the other was directed by a Brit. I’ve heard quite a bit of shouting, both male and female — I’ll grant you that.

      • I’m pleased my slippage interests you. And I’m sure ’stuffed‘ is an exaggeration (though they are very popular).

        I don’t have a problem with German theatre at all. My comment about nudity and shouting was just a silly joke. I’m sure German theatre has the same proportions of good, bad, interesting and boring work as any other kind of theatre.

        But I think if the people interviewed were that excited by German theatre their references might extend beyond Ostermeier’s Hamlet, 3 Kingdoms and Peter Stein – don’t you?

        • Oh come on. You can be excited about a type of theater and still not want to see your national theater culture change to that style. That’s the beautiful thing about experiencing diverse theater aesthetics: we can appreciate, enjoy and even love a style that’s not our own („own“ understood on a personal or cultural level).

          But of course, I’m the American giving the politically-correct answer, feel free to ignore me and our musical-oriented theater culture.

    • Maybe I should start working on the next post, a survey of the German perspective on UK theatre – it seems only fair. But I would actually also be very interested to hear what the German response to this outcome is!

      • I’d love to read the reverse questionnaire. Actually, some Germans replied to your first survey, also on Twitter. Missing Marthaler, Thalheimer, being surprised that Brecht was named.

  4. There is a big bias in the experience of German theatre abroad. 1. They watch several performances in Germany (they heard good things about) only stage the best productions because they have to pay a lot – the crappy ones stay at home. 2. They know their public and only invite production they expect to be successful – productions touring in the UK are only partly the same to travel to France.

    • I do not get the point why they (the theatre people from the UK?) only stage the best productions BECAUSE they have to pay a lot? Does that make sense?