Tuesday 20 May 2014

Postcards aus Theatertreffen I

[written in transit between Berlin and Brussels, via London. No sleep. Apologies for likely errors]

Having read Meg Vaughan and Holger Syme’s (admittedly incomplete) dispatches from the first week of Theatertreffen, I was already slightly regretting not having made a proper plan sooner. Bloody cash-flow. Still, I was excited to be going.

It seems that the second full week of TT is duds and misfires week. Well, no, that’s not even remotely fair. I flew in too late to see Miet Warlop’s astonishing-sounding Mystery Magnet on the Monday night, but everyone was raving about it when I caught up with them the next day. “Like an hour-long action-painting”, helpfully suggested.

Still, I was excited to see both Chris Thorpe be interviewed by Simon Stephens and to then see him perform in his play There Has Possibly Been an Incident. I’ve already written a review of the actual performance for the Guardian, but its worth returning to the wider context and its reception. As it turned out, Thorpe’s piece wound up being something of a sacrificial lamb at this year’s Stückemarkt. The whole deal with Stückemarkt had, in previous years (possibly as many as the previous 53 or so years), been a competition open to any writer (under 35?) with an unperformed play. Ten German writers and ten international writers would win opportunities to have their winning works given a rehearsed reading, and the winner of this would get a production(? Published?). So, y’know, quite a major part of the new writing ecology in Germany.

This year, for the first time ever, apparently with no warning, and with only a somewhat shaky-sounding conceptual rationale, the powers-that-be decided to completely change the direction of Stückemarkt – this year there were only three chosen/selected works, each was already a full production, and each was chosen by a single/sole “celebrity” sponsor. Simon choosing Chris, Katie Mitchell choosing Warlop and Signa Köstler (of SIGNA frame) choosing Mona el Gammel. Now, apparently the main reason for this was wanting the new Stückemarkt to better reflect different possibilities of “authorship” – devised work, installation work, and so on. And I think the powers-that-be knew what they were doing when they selection Mitchell, Köstler and Stephens. Each artist has a signature style, there was an element, I suppose, of them “annointing” someone working in what they saw as a similar vein, but pushing the envelope more. This was certainly the tenor of the selected candidates – Köstler’s choice offered the installation HAUS//NUMMER/NULL, Miet Warlop – although perhaps the least obvious choice by a judge – offering a piece of work eeriely complete and closed-off in a way that one might imagine appealled to Mitchell’s own rigorous ways of working,combined with an originality and artistry that Mitchell also clearly prizes.

Stephens’s choice of Thorpe makes perfect sense to me. In a lot of ways they’re both remarkably similar and completely different. Thorpe isn’t just a writer, though, he is also a deviser and a performer, solo, in ensembles, and sometimes even as a “proper actor”. What might have been unfortunate in terms of positioning was the fact that Sam Pritchard’s production of There Has Possibly Been an Incident – pretty much universally praised in Edinburgh last year – takes more-or-less the exact form of a rehearsed reading. The actors hold scripts. They sit on chairs. They speak into microphones. Indeed, the first bit of ...Incident I ever saw – Thorpe reading just the Tienanmen Square section at Forest Fringe, only a day or so before Headlong released their video trailer for Chimerica, ironically – had pretty much the exact same set-up, albeit in a much smaller room, with a smaller audience, and none of the other bits. But in terms of actual performance mode, very similar.

In Britain, I think we account this sort of thing very *pure*, very *theatre*, very *stripped-back*. And, hell, I agree. I love this show. More Germans than I’d have liked seemed to have reservations, though. It was hard to tell if the reservations were really with the script, the production, or the unwelcome intervention into Stückemarkt that it represented. Certainly the more hostile reviews seem to take all three pieces together as an opportunity to grumble about the format-shift.

On the other hand, there were others who wondered if such a *direct* approached played off the text enough. Its literary qualities just being baldly stated rather than cunningly revealed. The text alone, some seemed to say, isn’t enough. You need something to counterpoint a piece this direct, otherwise the real pleasure of the text, and the facts of its difficulty, get glossed over, and it looks more agit-proppy than it actually is.

Obviously, being a reasonable man, I could see how a different production would bring out different qualities in the text. At the same time, I did feel slightly irritated and let-down. After all, God knows I spend enough time in Britain writing about how we need to expand our frame of theatrical reference and try to understand that other countries have different ways of doing things, and that just planting a Union Jack in *Theatre* and saying “this is how it must be done” is idiotic. So it saddens me when a load of Germans turn round and start sounding like the equivalent of Michael Billington at his least tolerant.

What was interesting was the extent to which I’d thought of ...Incident as quite “European” friendly in terms of its aesthetic. It was useful ans salutary to remember that “looking a bit like...” isn’t the same as “being plugged into the same set of thinking underpinning a production”.

This question of similarities and differences seemed to be a fascinating recurring theme throughout the week, possibly following on from my piece about British companies doing translated foreign plays, I found myself also thinking a lot more about foreign companies doing or even just watching British work, and wondering if German demands for opposition to the text and more irony were things we would actually benefit from importing. I was much less sure than I felt about the issue of trying to make European texts work in a British context.

I want to look at this further in my next post, where hopefully I’ll discuss the International Forum programme of discussions which took place the day after ...Incident.

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