Monday 28 January 2013

Britain’s got Europe

[response to this and hopefully a resource, of sorts]

Despite not having been at D&D this year, I spent some of the weekend reading the reports as they went up online – faster and more readably than ever, I noticed. I’m going to restrict myself to writing about the two or three that really grabbed me (or until I get sidetracked). With sickening inevitability, the one that grabbed me most was the session called by Oliver Lamford of Switchback Productions entitled “Making European theatre HERE”

The introduction alone is a thing of beauty:
We've had some really inspiring and exciting European work appear in the UK over the past few years: Three Kingdoms, Castellucci, Ostermeier, Alain Platel, and many more.

They’ve been big-scale, ambitious works: there have been a lot of other British theatremakers around who’ve seen the work and been really excited by it and talked about there needing to be more work like this being made here.

But, each time, after the shows move on, the energy seems to dissipate.
We’re part of Europe. We make theatre.

How do we make European Theatre happen here?

Lamford goes on to offer some sensible qualifiers (that, yes, he knows “European Theatre” is a stupidly broad term, etc.), but I think the examples he cites are, crucially, the examples which have excited the most, and they have a through-line of sorts artistically.

Not having attended the discussion, I run the risk of repeating what’s already been said, so apologies to those who did attend the discussion if I do. However, it is in the interests of writing a coherent blog post that I probably cover a bit of the same ground anyway.

[personal bit, feel free to skip...]

This is a subject very dear to my heart. Since going to the SpielArt Festival in Munich in 2007 (blogs on it here and here) as the British member of a “Mobile Lab” on criticism organised by a number of festivals – including LIFT – under the umbrella Festivals In Transition, how I positioned myself as a critic, or even just as a watcher-of-theatre altered immeasurably. If you want a snapshot of where my understanding of European theatre was at before this trip, check out my Anglo-perspective review of Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Blasted. [Ironically, after being utterly infatuated with his production of Hedda Gabler in ‘08, a bit meh about his Hamlet at the Schaubühne in ‘09, and then going out with a German director who couldn’t stand Ostermeier and seeing his fairly ropey Othello in ‘10, I now wonder whether I might have hit a few nails on the head about his style there, albeit from a position of total ignorance.] However, after Munich, through Helsinki, Wiesbaden, Rakevere, Nitra, Vilnius, and finally Ljubljana a year later. And then Berlin, Warsaw, Sweden, and Prague in 2009, and by the end of ‘09 moving to Berlin, I felt I had begun to change from being a British critic who occasionally saw “European theatre” (mostly at the Barbican or in Edinburgh) to a European critic who happened to be from Britain.

[ can come back now]

Looking back at those blogs I’ve linked to above has actually been quite interesting. Not least as a way of mapping the way various questions I found myself asking evolved, but also for noticing questions I was asking about the way that Britain seemed so far removed from Europe as recently ago as 2007.

Now, granted in theatre as in many things, perhaps every generation needs to re-discover the wheel. Reading The Turning World, Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton’s book about the foundation and subsequent 23 years of the LIFT Festival up to 2003, you see practically the same journey as I’ve described above. Doubtless biographies of Simon McBurney, Declan Donnellan and Katie Mitchell would also trace similar trajectories. If you look at Theatre Record, Ian Herbert’s semi-regular “Can you hear me in...” columns describe attendance of more international festivals than I’ve had heiß Frühstücks. Similarly, Michael Coveney’s surprisingly involved reports from the brilliantly programmed BITEF festival in Belgrade often describe a older, white, male ex-print-critic enjoying the pleasure of being staggered by new European work. And, looking further back, it’s clear from Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism that his generation of critics also “discovered Europe” in their younger days. Looking back further still, my copy of the collection Tynan includes extended sections on visits not only to America, but also to France, East and West Germany and Russia. Indeed, I was reading (probably in A Good Night Out) that it was Tynan’s infatuation with the Berliner Ensemble after they visited the Royal Court in 1958 that really ensured that company’s influence on British theatre stuck.

So, in one sense, I suppose I want to sound a vague warning: that we’re not the first generation to discover Europe, and there’s no sense saying we are. On the other hand, the tone of lofty dismissal that sometimes seems almost deafening from the MSM critics nowadays (and, is it just me, or have they actually improved a bit, post-Three Kingdoms, with A Midsummer Nights Dream as you like it, Three Sisters, and the Russian Vanya all getting something like a fair hearing followed by praise?).

Against this, I do think there are also significant differences. The European Union (God bless it) is one. We are, at this point in our history, legally and legislatively closer to Europe than we have ever been before. This fact is reinforced by both the Eurotunnel and easyJet. There is the simple fact that for less than the price of a return to Leeds or Edinburgh we can now visit almost any major city in Europe overnight or for the weekend. Factor in the lower cost of their tickets, and find a friend on whose sofa you can sleep, and we have the best access to theatre in Europe ever. This makes a massive difference. It means that we don’t have to wait for British "international fesitvals" to bring work to us, we can go and seek it out. Friends can recommend shows, blogs can review them, and thanks to the repertory systems in most European countries, we can go and catch those shows three months later.

The second warning, which is much more important, is the urgent need for us to properly *understand* *why* theatre from the mainland is like it is. I have a theory about the nature of the impact that the Berliner Ensemble’s visit to [edit: London] in 1958 had. It is this: British Theatre got rid of its sets.

C’est tout.

I think the one take-home idea British theatremakers got from the whole of Brecht’s extensive practice in theatre was that they could stage things in a black space with a few bits and pieces suggestively hung about the place to suggest location.

That’s probably unfair. I wasn’t alive in the sixties, so I have no direct experience of British playwrights’ attempts to write Brechtian Epic-style theatre. [Edit: and Mark Ravenhill has just suggested that the RSC's formation was also as a direct result of the ensemble principles of the BE]  But if there’s one take-home point I really want this blog to make it’s that I don’t want this brilliant enthusiasm for European Theatre to resolve into some saggy Ersatz Nüblingisms chucked at any text that happens to come a director’s way.
  • I think, for example, that there’s *a lot* to be said for the practice of ensembles.
  • I think there is a lot to be said for the design of a lot of modern German theatres – the feeling of classlessness and democracy about them. Their functionality. Their modernity and lack of pretension. Their ticket-pricing. The fact that in many modern auditoria, there is just a single rake of seats and they’re all the same price.
  • I think, equally, there’s a lot to be said for the way that the old buildings position themselves in terms of accessibility. The fact that you can go and see, say, Current 93 (a very silly sort-of goth band, m’lud) or see a film at the Volksbühne, as easily as you might go and see Frank Castorf’s version of Three Sisters – Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! – or something by Rene Pollesch, is, I think, absolutely crucial in terms of the local public’s perception of that building as something that’s *theirs*. Something that for my money totally earns it the right to keep the name the People’s Stage. Similarly, look at the HAU generating work like Peaches Does Herself. It’s not only great programming, it’s also massively populist programming that totally breaks into other genres and demographics without even having to try – and, crucially, doesn’t look tokenistic, or sit oddly artistically with the rest of its work.
But most of all, there’s the matter of the culture that the work springs from. Britain isn’t Germany (or Poland, or the Czech Republic, or Slovenia, or Russia, or Georgia). We can import their ideas – indeed, if there’s one thing Britain is astonishingly good at, it’s Magpie-ing other people’s good ideas – but maybe we have to perhaps explain them slightly as we go along. And perhaps there will be some ideas and aspects we can’t naturalise. I think, for example, the German style of acting that involves speaking so non-naturalistically that it sounds almost like the actor is speaking from a musical score is never going to translate. I’d love someone to prove me wrong.

Similarly, part of me wonders about the possibility of just importing a style that has grown out of several very specific historical circumstances – Brecht, post-war de-Nazification, Communism, etc. and a the national culture that developed from Hegel and Kant, Fredrich II and the aftermath of the 30 Years War.

On the other hand, we’re not stupid. We can watch it when it comes over, and be more amazed by it than by (all but?) the very best of our home-grown directorial talent. And, hell, it’s British plays they’re doing half the time... So with the above caveats in mind, why the hell shouldn’t Britain be making properly brilliant Regietheater (it’s German for director’s theatre, let’s use it) to rival anything in Europe?

I can not wait to see it.


[picture at the top a screen-cap from this trailer for Hamlet is Dead - No Gravity, which I saw in Wiesbaden in '08 - worth a look. From 2.46 shows one of my favourite directorial interventions with text-speaking ever...]

[Edit: there's a fascinating interview with Edward Bond by Michael Billington which puts the date of the Berliner Ensemble in London at 1956. Worth reading also for Bond's thoughts on Brecht.  And while you're at it, you should probably read this piece by Maddy Costa about Sean Holmes restaging Saved in 2011.]


Tom said...

This is a brilliant post, Andrew (although you know I think this, I already told you). I just had something to add that's been bubbling away for the past day or two. So much so that I almost wrote a blog post of my own. Almost.

You're totally right - we need to understand what components make this theatre as good as it is. And it's also true that those components require thought and effort in areas other than 'add a bit of movement here' or, as you put it, ersatz Nuebling-isms.

From a director's point-of-view, there's something else I wanted to add. There's a bit of a myth about contemporary European theatre being a director's theatre. We've talked about this in the past, and as I've understood you've told me that you use it from a critical perspective, to describe work that doesn't just 'do the play' (I'm sure you put it far more articulately than that). I totally accept that.

But I think there's something quite dangerous when that term makes the leap from a critical term to describing a model of working. Not necessarily dangerous because I don't agree with that way of working, but dangerous because it's an inaccurate description of how many/most European directors work. The thing that I am finding out from travelling to Germany, seeing more work, meeting and working with their practitioners, is that the director is a facilitator and manager, not the sole source of all creation.

There was something Steven Scharf told me - he said "in Germany, it is not so much a director's theatre, it is an actor's theatre". Of course, this doesn't accurately describe the critical experience of the work. But, I think it does describe the procedural experience of making the work. The director will provoke her actors, Steven again described this as "setting the frame for the rehearsal", but it is the actors who take the ideas and make them fly and, indeed, the actors who are always giving new ideas. Something that reads like a directorial intervention very likely came from an actor ("Hey, Herr Direktor, could we get some helium balloons in here?").

There's also a conversation to be had about the relationship between the theatre manager, the dramatrug, and the production's director, particularly when setting the intellectual questions or theme of a production. There's a good article that begins to touch on this here:

Critically, it doesn't matter a jot where an idea comes from. However, to this emerging generation of directors, actors and writers who are interested in a more playful mode of theatrical representation, it is absolutely crucial that we understand this collaborative process. Ellen McDougall also wrote about this in her brilliant blog-report from her recent German trip,

The weaker work made in the UK by directors who are excited by European theatre has often felt like the product of one person's ideas, rather than allowing those ideas to spread and multiply across an entire company. A company of artists - directors, actors, writers, dramaturgs, et al - who all share a creative vision of how theatre can address an audience.

Thanks again for this blogpost, contributing to this very exciting discussion.

Matt Beresford said...

The weaker work made in the UK by directors who are excited by European theatre has often felt like the product of one person's ideas, rather than allowing those ideas to spread and multiply across an entire company. not the key challenge for UK directors in this regard the incredibly limited time they have in comparison to their counterparts on the continent?

It's difficult to allow the spreading and multiplying in 3/4 weeks with a a set already being built, costumes made (and therefore a style already decided), by necessity, by director and designer?

Surely these issues of practicality are as important in the differences in British and European theatre as our varied history?