Enter one of the clichés of the theatrical world: for Anglo-Saxons, weirdness starts at Calais, and by the time you reach Germany all bets about rational staging are off. Conversely, some continental Europeans (and younger Britons) believe that anglophones are ridiculously hidebound in their theatrical expectations and take virulently against anything different simply for being different.
There is a grain of truth in each view. By fortunate coincidence, late November offered an opportunity to test the reality: within a week, three Berlin theatres presented the German premiere of a work by a British playwright from the past couple of years.
Simon Stephens has often expressed enthusiasm for the adventurous stagings of his plays by Sebastian Nübling; indeed, it was Nübling’s presentation of Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, in London at the Lyric Hammersmith last year, that crystallised this debate in a British context.
Which is why Nübling’s staging of Stephens’ Morning at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin makes for instructive viewing. Sean Holmes’ premiere of Morning last year was as spare as Stephens’ writing characteristically is: the actors from the Lyric’s Young Company gave direct, unadorned performances, leaving us to assemble our own account from this portrayal of two teenage girls who kill the boyfriend of one of them, seemingly for no reason.
Nübling’s production, visiting Berlin from the Junges Theater of Basel, is likewise direct. But where Holmes left the uncertainties of adolescence to echo through the gaps in Stephens’ writing, Nübling and his cast fill those gaps with noise, music and physicality in which horseplay is indistinguishable from violence.
The effect, paradoxically, is to clarify matters. We still have little idea why protagonist Stephanie did such a thing but we grasp how she could. As regards clarity, the Maxim Gorki Theater’s presentation included an element that was for me both novel and necessary: surtitles translated the dialogue from the youngsters’ thick Swiss German into a more standard form. I guess one often feels that any teens need surtitles.
Martin Crimp’s In The Republic Of Happiness raised hackles when offered as an anti-Christmas presentation at the Royal Court last winter. The woman beside me kept up a running commentary on her annoyance until I in turn let loose at her. I then realised that the play’s purpose was to rankle, by showing the hollowness of today’s canards about autonomy and self-fulfilment. It seems odd to criticise Rafael Sanchez’s production for the Deutsches Theater by saying that I didn’t find it nearly so irksome.
The first section, portraying a dysfunctional middle-class family Christmas, seemed more a straightforward comedy of manners than a sly and insinuating indictment of us watching it. And the third and final segment shows further explicit strife rather than bright but insubstantial pseudo-resolution. The social critique remains – but it carries the lesser weight of something heard rather than experienced. Clarity at the expense of subtlety and complexity.
Even the clarity vanishes with Sanchez’s decision to place his interval, and a major set change, between the first and second of the five essential freedoms of the individual, which form the choric middle section of the play. True, the choice is between preserving Crimp’s wildly unbalanced timing by breaking three-quarters of the way through or stopping mid-act and thereby also destroying the sense of a Dantesque triptych; this production, surprisingly, plays safe with our expectations about scheduling.
Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs was the most admired of a trio of plays presented in a tent by touring company Paines Plough in 2011-12. In it, an unnamed couple superimpose the intimate on the global as they debate the personal and ecological issues of having a baby.
Katie Mitchell’s production for the Schaubühne, retitled Atmen (“Breathe”) maintains the preoccupations that motivated her Royal Court production Ten Billion last year, as well as other longer-held fixations.
Atmen is literally driven by the performers. However, Lucy Wirth and Christoph Gawenda can’t generate enough electricity simply by exercise-biking through the piece on their own, so a quartet of supernumeraries at the sides of the stage also keep thanklessly pedalling. And the modest amounts generated mean that, after 20 or so years, Mitchell has at last found an objective rationale for her long-held fondness for staging work in dim lighting. Above the stage, an LED display ticks off the increasing global population: 71 minutes of performance correspond to just under 15,000 births.
I got the impression that the Berlin audience watched dutifully rather than raptly, with less response to the sardonic humour than I expected.
So, do German directors – or British directors working as honorary Germans – really throw whatever they fancy into their stagings? On these showings, rather the reverse: what seems left-field or gratuitous is usually a considered attempt to animate the core of the play. They trust their audiences to see beyond the spectacle and interpret these non-literal configurations. What is especially heartening, though, is the implied converse: that British directors likewise trust their viewers to interpret absences.