'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.