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Blog: Points of departure – reflections on German theatre

Posted on 02 January 2014 by Adam Foster

 

'Atmen' directed by Katie Mitchell

‘Atmen’ directed by Katie Mitchell

I don’t speak German. Not a word. So it was with some trepidation that I travelled to Berlin a couple of weeks ago to see Hedda Gabler directed by Stefan Pucher at the Deutsches Theater and the German language première of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs (Atmen) directed by Katie Mitchell at the Schaubühne – both in German and both without surtitles.

Although this was my first trip to Germany, it was not my first experience of German theatre. That came whilst taking part in a new writing venture during my second year at university, when I was paired with a German director from Hamburg on her term abroad. What was most striking about the experience was the rigour with which she strove to find a pertinent conceptual staging that would best illuminate my play’s themes and ideas. At the time, I interpreted this as an attempt to overwhelm the play with a brash directorial concept. What I have realised, with hindsight, is that her conceptual staging emerged from my play. She had taken the play’s themes and ideas and used them as a point of departure.

There are a number of commonly held assumptions about the nature of Continental European theatre, not least that it is director-centric. In contrast, British theatre has often turned its back on the directorial traditions of Continental Europe in favour of the play and the playwright. In the preface to the playtext of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms, the German Director Sebastian Nübling talks about how in Britain “the play and the playwright come first and many directors… see themselves as someone who supports the text. In Germany, directors try to invent an autonomous aesthetic with an ambivalent relation to the text.” Nübling, in a nut shell, goes some way to articulating the differing sensibilities of what we might broadly term ‘British’ and ‘German’ theatre. Having said that, I would contest that there is such a thing as ‘German theatre’ – certainly on the evidence of my trip to Berlin.

So, first of all, Stefan Pucher’s production of Hedda Gabler at the Deutsches Theater. Pucher’s productions are, I gather, renowned for the manner in which they strive to find different mechanisms to distance the stage from reality. The evening began, however, in a reality of sorts, in the form of an exaggerated yet finely detailed nineteenth-century Scandinavian interior. This detached and deeply ironic historicisation of space and place was followed by a sort of thrilling surrealistic, expressionistic, hedonistic thrill ride – with songs.

Whether it was because the lyrics were in English or the fact that their inclusion seemed so incongruous, I found myself striving to find new meaning in the songs of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. There were certain moments of orchestrated thematic resonance, but beyond that their inclusion seemed rather redundant at first. However, as the stage revolved to reveal a deep, white crescent-moon shaped void, the songs and the instruments on which they were played became, well, instrumental. In an interlude of pure expressionistic fervour, Hedda was transformed into the lead singer of a band comprised of the other characters in the play. Thus Hedda’s initial manipulation of the characters around her manifested itself in her literal manipulation and conducting of the music – at least that’s how I interpreted it.

This interlude, eccentric as it was, highlighted the extent to which an autonomous aesthetic allows scope for broader interpretation by an audience. This was, of course, emphasised by the fact that I don’t speak any German. As such, the aesthetic aspects of Pucher’s production necessarily had a much greater impact on my theatrical experience. Nevertheless, it was striking how I found myself striving to find meaning in even the most incongruent of incongruences.

Speaking of the incongruent, there’s no point even trying to find a seamless link between Pucher’s Hedda Gabler and Katie Mitchell’s production on the other side of Berlin because, frankly, there isn’t one. Since her emergence in the mid-1990s Katie Mitchell has worked extensively in Britain, especially at the National Theatre. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that her work has a sensibility that is fundamentally at odds with the bulk of British theatrical culture, certainly the mainstream. Thankfully, her work is cherished in Germany – and it’s easy to see why. Mitchell’s staging of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs (Atmen) at the Schaubühne is further evidence of what an extraordinarily intelligent and visionary director she is. The production also serves as a nagging reminder of how disappointing it is not to see her work more regularly on these shores.

Mitchell’s production operates, largely, at the level of metaphor. Both actors are on bikes, on separate plinths, connected by various wires to an operating desk at the back of the stage. The idea is that they, together with four stagehands, physically produce the required electricity to power all facets of the production. For a play about environmental concern it isn’t exactly subtle, but its resolute simplicity is utterly brilliant.

Atmen represents a near-perfect marriage of British and German theatrical sensibilities. Mitchell’s composite conceptual staging gives birth to a richly layered metaphorical landscape, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that her staging doesn’t serve the text on its own terms. As such, as Andrew Haydon has noted, it’s not a production that would be impossible to imagine happening here.

As we move into a new year, and all the broadsheets and blogs run lists of the year’s top productions, I’m sure I’m not alone in reflecting on my favourite theatre from the past year. In doing so, I naturally found myself looking at examples of productions that were similar in terms of formal and stylistic innovation to the work I saw in Berlin. Sean Holme’s exhilarating Secret Theatre season would feature very highly on such a list. After all, the notion of launching a daring new generation of theatre practitioners by shattering convention, categorisation and commodification seems to embrace a very German (/European/Continental) spirit of innovation.

There are, clearly, a number of economic, political and ideological factors that govern the innovative traditions of Continental European theatre. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the willingness of audiences to engage with formally and stylistically challenging work that ensures its continued spirit of innovation. What has been most striking about Secret Theatre is the willingness, particularly of young audiences, to engage with the work created by Holmes’s company. Indeed, the recent fervour surrounding Ivo van Hove and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Scenes From A Marriage further demonstrates the growing appetite for work of this sort on these shores. I only hope I don’t have to go all the way to Berlin to see more of it in the new year.

 

Adam Foster

Adam Foster

Adam graduated from the University of Exeter in 2012. He is currently enrolled on Royal Holloway’s MA Playwriting course run by the playwright and academic Dan Rebellato. He has previously trained as an actor at The BRIT School and is represented by Alchemy Active Management.

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Feature: Secret Theatre – surprise and subversion

Posted on 09 October 2013 by Tom Powell

As the Lyric gears up for Show 3 of its Secret Theatre season, AYT talks to ensemble cast member Billy Seymour about engaging new audiences and taking inspiration from German theatremakers

Photo (c) Alexandra Davenport

Photo (c) Alexandra Davenport

As I’m led up through the Lyric Hammersmith’s redevelopment to a disused office on the second floor, the building seems far from quiet. Artistically, the multi-million pound redevelopment, secured in pre-austerity times, has already created a new creative space – a space filled by the Secret Theatre season. I’m here to interview Billy Seymour about the nature of Secret Theatre. He’s an unmistakably talented actor, and one-tenth of the ensemble special assembled for the season. In a disused office full of crumpled paper plates, where the walls are festooned with posters for Simon Stephens’s play, Morning, Seymour is swivelling on an office chair as he grapples with what Secret Theatre wants to do.

“We want to give a younger audience a different theatre experience, one which they don’t really see in this country,” he explains. It all started with Three Kingdoms, a Stephens play at the Lyric last year, which got mixed reviews but sold out on word of mouth because young audiences were flocking to it in droves. This approach takes inspiration from German theatre – Seymour warms to his theme, describing it in comparison to British theatre as “weird and wonderful. Bigger and bolder. There’s no apologising for anything they do.” There’s a series of statements about what and who should be on the stage, too: the make-up of the ensemble ensures there’s always five male and five female actors, ethnic minority actors and a disabled actor on the stage. There’s a politics of representation, as well as an aesthetic challenge being extended to what they see as the conservatism of the London theatre.

What strikes you as you see a Secret Theatre show is how it prioritises images above language, and rates how the audience experiences the play over their ability to understand it. Nadia Albina spends much of Show 1 suspended above the stage, elegantly spinning round and round as water drains from her midriff. Initially it seems based on a weak visual pun – that everything goes in circles – but becomes a recurring image of the show; a show that is composed of images, vignettes, and dramatic digressions that are at times barely comprehensible. But that is the core of what Secret Theatre is about – surprise and subversion. Seymour tells me the most surprising thing about Show 3, which will be the next show to open, is that rehearsing it “has been like doing a normal show. So far.”

It’s an approach that has proved polarising, both with critics and in the omnipresent sphere of social media. I ask Seymour what a successful Secret Theatre season would look like, and he’s adamant it has already succeeded on its own terms “by attracting the audiences that are coming, and the feedback we’ve had. Obviously some people aren’t going to like it – we’re bringing something new to the table.”

This difference is why it’s important; a genuinely brave attempt to reshape the mould of what is possible on a London stage. Seymour has no doubt that the key to unlocking this process has been time: “‘if you’re doing a four week rehearsal process, you have three weeks to get the character – that’s it. You’ve got one eye on the next job down the line – you can’t take the kind of risks that we’ve been able to take.” Risks such as spending weeks doing every single thing differently, and taking plays that were written by the company’s resident writers with specific actors in mind for specific roles, and casting them differently. Seymour laughs: “We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve had too much fun maybe.”

Seymour’s route into acting is as unconventional as Secret Theatre itself: “I fell into it. My Dad works on film – I went with him when I was a kid, for a commercial, and the main kid swore at the director. So the director said ‘can we stick your boy in?’ I said ‘no’, my Dad said ‘do it – they’ll pay you’.” His advice? Don’t swear at directors. His earliest memory of going to the theatre is as an actor – starring in Simon Stephens’s play Herons at the Royal Court when he was just 15. It was after Herons that Seymour “realised that’s what I wanted to do”. Perhaps because of the unlikely circumstances that led him to the stage, he seems intent on grabbing every circumstance that comes his way. The reason that he took Secret Theatre is because he “won’t get another opportunity to do it something like it again”. Part of this is the changing landscape for arts funding in the UK: it is government support for the redevelopment and the resulting lack of commercial pressure that has allowed the extravagant rehearsal times of the impromptu Secret Theatre season.

I love the idea of Secret Theatre but I’m yet to be convinced by its practice. Maybe as something new, it needs the space to try and to fail, a time either to grow into itself or for audiences to become more attuned to its weirdness. My worry is that it won’t be given this time or patience, and something as brave and interesting as Secret Theatre deserves it. The final word lies with the company. I ask Seymour if there’s anything he wants to tell AYT readers: “come and see it,” he says, with a grin that bears the unmistakeable hint of a challenge.

The Lyric’s Secret Theatre season is currently booking until 9 November and will return in January. Show 3 opens on 22 October, and AYT is offering five readers the chance to see the show on 24 October, attend a pre-show Q&A and to write about the experience. For more information about this competition visit the competition page, and for more information about Secret Theatre visit the Lyric’s website.

 

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Review: Secret Theatre Show Two

Posted on 24 September 2013 by Jake Orr

This review does not name the play in Show Two, but it does describe and give suggestions as to the show, which some readers may wish to avoid if they are seeing Show Two.

Show Two Secret Theatre

The woman sitting in front of me gave an audible gasp, lent across to her companions and whispered the play name that marks the second show in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre season. Later another woman some seats away covered her face in a bid to hide the action from her view. It seems that Sean Holmes is doing something right in his radical but distinct remaking of a very well known text in Show Two. It certainly does offer a contrasting direction to the other numerous amount of performances of this classic text.

The most notable variation comes from the stark staging, similar to that of Show One. Designer Hyemi Shin creates a stage space, sheltered on both sides with large white walls, a large white backdrop and the same for the flooring. Contained within these white walls, the ensemble of Secret Theatre cause havoc. Opening with Katherine Pearce appearing over the top of one of the walls and smashing something onto the floor beneath her whilst she screams, any idea that you’ll be seeing a naturalistic representation of a text is dispelled quickly. Whilst Show One offered anarchy, there is much more control and style from Holmes’s direction for Show Two. Every action and moment feels considered, leaving greater room for atmospheric and energy fluctuations that give the audience a more established, and, indeed, traditional, journey through the play.

Nadia Albina leads the cast. Her character grates against you like nails on a blackboard, and often you can’t help but to want to give her a slap and tell her to grow up; we’re not really meant to enjoy her role, it acts as a catalyst for the other characters to explode continuously around her. And explode they do. A controlled and stern (and dare I say it, seductive?) Sergo Vares is the manly rock of Show Two, his stature as the dominant male is defined by his toned abs and his brute force as he cuts water melons (no, this isn’t some strange version of Dirty Dancing) and dishes them out as poker chips. Vares flips tables, staggers drunkenly, abuses the female characters and generally causes chaos. Albina meanwhile, whilst decidedly losing the hinges to her mental framework, trots about the stage space with airs of eloquence. By the end of Show Two she curls up in a corner screaming and raving, like a rabbit in headlights knowing that any minute she’s about to be hit be a truck. An excellent downfall if ever there was one.

Show Two feels richer than Show One, where the aesthetics appear stronger than the actual narration, Show Two gives a fuller and more dynamic narrative to enjoy. Holmes’s direction certainly comes with finer qualities and distinction, giving the ensemble a greater hold upon who they are playing within the crashing and banging of the stage space (which at times feels like it is purposely trying to crash against the performers). There is, however, a quality which I can’t help but feel that Show Two lacks, though, and that is emotional connection. I didn’t care for any of the characters, and at no point did the danger really penetrate beyond the membrane of the fourth wall. It might be a small note to make, but the design of the show interrupts, with all sense of playfulness, and stops any real connection that you would otherwise get from this text in more traditional presentations. It might just be me. The reactions from other audience members would suggest so, but investment into the work before you when watching a show is important.

In Show One I noted that it would be a fascinating experience to watch the development of the ensemble as they took on a number of roles which contrasted against the other roles they would find themselves playing. This certainly feels like the case; there’s a completeness that is encapsulated by the ensemble, a sense of ownership, which Show One lacked.  If this continues to grow across the Secret Theatre season then there’s a chance that we might get the see the fruits of Secret Theatre’s ensemble blossom and influence other theatres to adapt the rep model. Of course, this is all speculation, but Holmes’s commitment to experimentation and attempt to knocking our sense of traditional theatre gives Show Two a distinct level of grounding. It’s not perfect, but it offers a glimpse into the growing potential of this season of work.

Show Two is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 11th October. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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Review: Secret Theatre Show One

Posted on 13 September 2013 by Jake Orr

Secret Theatre Show OneThis review does not reveal the name of Secret Theatre Show One, but it does describe the visual elements and does give a very small clue as to the text used.

We’re plunged into total darkness. The safety curtain rises slowly. Mechanical whirring is the only sound. The stage is lit. Large green plastic sheets hang from the flies. A piano. Some chairs. Three television screens. The cast emerge one by one. They line up. Costumes of shorts and vests, dirty. They stare. They twitch. They walk forward to the front of the stage. They become animals scavenging for water from cups. Their bodies roll across each other. They stop, and go back to the line. The safety curtain comes down.

At this point in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre Show One, the first in the Secret Theatre season of work, the audience have not a clue what they have brought a ticket for. From this opening scene, it’s still not apparent what show Sean Holmes has chosen to open this body of work with (although Show Two opened before Show One), but one thing is evidentially clear: this show is going to have some guts to it. This is evident from the banner that hangs by the box office in the Lyric’s foyer, a challenge to make theatre that audiences are hungry for, a type of theatre that is rooted in smashing preconceived ideas. Secret Theatre as a concept attempts to do this across a year’s work with a troupe of actors, writers and designers. To explore and break down our notions of theatre, just like Three Kingdoms achieved last year in the same venue.

In Secret Theatre Show One a classical text is put into the firing line of Holmes’s directing. I’m hearing rumours that Show Two puts the notion of director ahead of text to the point of oblivion, whereas there’s already a sense from this text that, like many productions of it beforehand, there is already an inherent deconstruction and acceptance that the director can take liberties. It is, after all (TINY SPOILER) an unfinished text. (END TINY SPOILER). Holmes treats the text episodically; the strongest elements that come through are the visuals. One character, played by Billy Seymour, spends the entire play pinned to the centre of the stage via a rope, navigating the stage in large swooping circles. Another moment sees the entire cast dressed in animal onesies, throwing water at each other whilst the stage is filled with strobe lighting. It feels chaotic and electric, alive with visually sweet images and moments.

There are scenes that capture the imagination, that give your heart a good pounding. During these moments it’s clear to see the mission of Secret Theatre has been given a chance to breathe. Leo Bill, with a cigarette protruding from his mouth, sitting at a piano and singing a sexy, sassy and seductive number whilst wearing a silk nightie, certainly gives the impression that he’s enjoying himself in this process. Other cast members find themselves in gender reversal: Charlotte Josephine plays her saxophone like she’s giving blow jobs to the audience; it’s orgasmic, but she’s also a male character who is driven by lust. Meanwhile Katherine Pearce is the perfect picture of a woman from Essex gone astray in the night, leaving her child in pursuit of something more intense but short lived.

Visually Secret Theatre Show One hits the mark. It does away with treating the text, and instead creates something bigger, an experiment which for the most part pays off. Where the production falls is when it hurls the visual identity of the play away, leaving behind the text which at times loses the central focus of the play itself. I say this as someone who knows the text, and whilst Holmes has played further with it, it does lack finesse. The central themes of the play come through the visual chaos that Holmes creates on the stage, but this isn’t carried throughout.

There’s something interesting, too, in watching the actors play characters which are new to them, and by this I mean away from their usual playing type. A great example is Steven Webb who becomes transformative in the role he takes. No laughs, no campness (anyone who has seen the Lyric Hammersmith’s panto will know what I mean), just straight acting. It works, but it’s not the same for all the cast. This is where Secret Theatre becomes a fascinating experiment. Everything from the process of working to the presentation is about risk taking, and trying something that rubs up against the restraints that British theatre tries to impose. It’s satisfying to see actors out of their comfort zone playing characters that make them appear weak actors, because you know that come another show they’re going to be seen in a completely different perspective, and no doubt shine because of it.

Secret Theatre Show One is not going to please everyone. It’s already shown that some critics struggle to get a grip on it, whilst the younger, more hungry crowd of theatre viewers are lapping it up. True, the production isn’t perfect – it relies too much upon the aesthetics and neglects to fully commit to a story the audience can follow (if that is possible from the original text which is already fragmented and disconnected). It does show that experiments can be exciting. Secret Theatre Show One left me bemused, frustrated and keen for more, and whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a step in the direction of something unchartered, and for that I can forgive and praise.

There have been comments that Secret Theatre is a pivotal moment for British theatre, and whilst I need to let this settle for a few more shows, those claims might just be right. Secret Theatre Show One appears as a giant “fuck you” to traditions, to text and conventions. That’s worth more than anything perfect.

Secret Theatre Show One is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 4 October. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo by Alexandra Davenport.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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