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New Times, Old Stories:

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Lydia Ziemke takes us on a journey through the best of Austrian theatre on the London stage

Chris Campbell, former literary manager at the National Theatre, once told me that German theatre always seems to have six main ingredients. We got as far as shouting, guns, and bodily fluids ... Perhaps for this reason, people still get nervous when German productions come to London and feel that going to see one is a rather brave and worthy undertaking.
 
Luc Bondy did not comply with this view. Going by the standards set above, his production of Arthur Schnitzler’s Sweet Nothings (‘Liebelei’) was very tame. In fact, it was characterised by the three other characteristics I suggest complete Campbell’s list: extremely free physicality, a refreshing irreverence towards the actual text, and a stage design that goes beyond merely depicting surroundings.
 
Between October 2009 and March 2010 no less than six German and Austrian texts overlapped on the London stage.* All of them had political themes at their heart, five of them directly related to the World Wars, two of them written by women and five directed by women. It seems the right time to investigate where this accumulated interest stems from and what its impact was.
 
My focus here is on three productions of plays by Austrian authors – Schnitzler’s Sweet Nothings (1895), and Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth (‘Krankheit der Jugend’, 1923) Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (1988) – all set in Vienna and all in some way linked to the two World Wars.
 
Luc Bondy gave us a taut, stylish picture of sexual promiscuity at the end of the nineteenth century. Katie Mitchell, too, dealt with the pains of growing up in an unstable society. With Bernhard’s last play, Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden chose his proclamation that this society has not moved on or ‘improved’ since the Holocaust. The two older plays were written when Freud, Klimt, Schiele and Munch were all active, and all three productions feed off the Expressionism that swept Germany and Austria at that time.
 
Germany and Austria experienced a surge of excellent young playwrights in the late nineties and early 2000s that is still continuing now, but these writers do not seem to promise financial or artistic success in the UK. It is remarkable that the bigger theatres here produce no new German drama today. The Royal Court introduced a very select audience to some of it in a series of readings in early 2009, and Company of Angels always include some work in their annual Theatre Café – also in staged readings.
 
The twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall might have yielded a greater insight into what young German playwrights think of it today. However, there were only two full productions: the first, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone at the Royal Court, was excellently directed by Ramin Gray, and the second was my own production of Anne Rabe’s Sunflower House at the Tristan Bates Theatre – and here it became painfully clear that there was not as much interest in the UK as I had anticipated.
 
Instead, the bigger theatres produce these three grand old men, obviously more suited to the tastes of an English audience. This is not only because their work is considered ‘safe’– my theory is rather that fascination with the war era has not faded. Of course this is important and good; as long as we contemplate how fascism could develop so far, it is less likely to reappear. But there is much more to Germany and Austria now, and that is what the young writers care about – few refer to the wars, and these three plays are very rarely produced today in the countries of their mother tongue.
 
The younger authors write mainly about the precarious situation of their generation in the current economic circumstances and they are, true to tradition, poets and philosophers. They experiment mainly in reaction to the so-called ‘Regie-Theater’ – a free treatment of the text according to the director’s and dramaturg’s vision.
 
It has become very unfashionable in Germany to write a ‘well-made’ play, and the new period has a name, too – the postdramatic movement takes to extremes the conviction that the world cannot be represented on stage and focuses on the actual engagement of the artists with the material. Since the 1960s, theatre-makers have experimented with breaking up the classical formats and placing the actor in front of the character in order to provoke a more immediate reaction from the audience. At the heart of this work lie the questions of how to live, and how to ‘improve’ society.
 
It may be an obstacle for English theatres that the new authors are deeply embedded in German/ Austrian history and write about, and against, limitations that may not concern English society so much. However, there are many new plays with a European outlook that would be valuable for an English audience, too; namely and most notably by Dea Loher, Gerhild Steinbuch, Marius von Mayenburg, Falk Richter, and Anja Hilling.
 
To return, then, to our grand old men. Part of any British audience will surely have known and valued these revered authors for as long as the Germans/Austrians, and they will be fascinated to see why directors choose them today. Others may still feel that too much hard-to-define avant-garde is invading their theatres. The reception of all three productions confirms both views.
 
Thomas Bernhard marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria by having his absent central character, Professor Josef Schuster, jump to his death onto Vienna’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) because he cannot bear to see how much the spirit of German fascism still permeates the present. It was in that same square that they welcomed Hitler with open arms and in 1988, so Bernhard proclaimed, ‘there are more Nazis in Vienna than there were fifty years ago!’
 
The weighty theme of the play is matched by its form. There are several long, static scenes and monologues debating modern Austrian fascism from Schuster’s, or rather Bernhard’s, perspective – and the whole evening demands the complete attention of the audience. Life is slowly sucked out of the characters, just as the fascist movement sucked, and apparently still sucks, life out of the people. The allegations against the Austrians of 1988 are grave, and the play caused an unprecedented scandal in Vienna.
 
It is a real achievement that both the team of translators and the directors did not make the play any easier on the audience, but presented a harsh production with just enough heart not to let anyone off the hook. This uneasy viewing is perceived as foreign, as many comments in the press reflect.
 
Some criticized the production as being ‘so stately and static and repetitious’ (Rhoda Koenig in The Independent), others praised it as ‘a bracing and revelatory revival and highly compelling’ (Michael Coveny, what’s on stage). Audience members seemed to be convinced of the importance and quality of the production even if most of them did not actually enjoy it very much. Some were thrilled at the unusual experience and some appalled at ‘seeing so many people half-asleep in the first half’. In my experience that is what every Bernhard production is like in Germany – the audience has to work harder than usual.
 
Katie Mitchell is more in the public eye than Castledine and Arden; but what they all share is the robust interpretation of a text and a clear director’s vision, qualities that Castledine and Arden demonstrated so often as founding members of Complicité. As has been the case in recent years, most notably in the case of The Seagull, Katie Mitchell once again divided her audience with Bruckner’s existentialist piece.
 
Written in 1926 and set in 1923, the play portrays the ennui of a generation precariously poised after the First World War. Expressionism still hangs in the air as Marie, Desireé and her friends are suspended between sexual experiments and expectations of starting a professional life. They are medical students and, instead of receiving her PhD that day, Desireé commits suicide. She seems unwilling and unable to follow society’s demands of conformity in order to rebuild itself, and we now know that it would not resist Hitler’s advances a decade later.
 
Mitchell also brought the content into the form and created a forensic team, external to the on-stage action, that managed the scene changes and in the process seemed to gather evidence against the characters. My interpretation of this feature: that we still examine and judge the interwar generation in the light of later, shared crimes.
 
Martin Crimp, longstanding collaborator of Mitchell, has translated the languishing nature of the characters well in his title – the German Krankheit (‘sickness’) becomes ‘Pains’. It not only sounds good but also expresses the prolonged nature of the phenomenon. Here, the clear authorship takes a significant step towards today’s younger audiences.
 
As with much of the public, the press was deliciously divided:
‘I thought the play blackly exhilarating in its ruthless (often mordantly amusing) anatomy of anomie ...The production has a stunningly imaginative coherence of style.’
(Paul Taylor for The Independent)
‘The only remotely enjoyable thing about this show is the moment when it stops.’
(Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph)
 
Schnitzler’s Sweet Nothings explores a similar theme at a time when sexual freedom was even more unimaginable. In 1895 in Vienna, two social revolutionaries were exploring the unconscious – Sigmund Freud concentrated on revealing the sexual aspects so far clothed in embarrassed silence, while Arthur Schnitzler broadened out to include people’s political hypocrisy, sometimes hinting at a permanently underlying anti- Semitism. With Bernard, Schnitzler shares a tendency to irritate the establishment. Like Heldenplatz, his play La Ronde (1897) was banned from the Austrian stage for twenty-four years. Today it is Schnitzler’s most widely performed play, although he is perhaps best known for having provided the basis (Traumnovelle, ‘Dream Novella’, 1927) for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
 
Luc Bondy received ecstatic reviews from critics but also outraged comments from audience members:
‘The dramatist’s vision is conveyed now in a brilliant, intensely deliberate and eerily stylish production by the Vienna-based, Swiss-born Luc Bondy.’
(Paul Taylor for The Independent)
‘Arthur Schnitzler’s drama in this piquant new version by David Harrower, directed with cool, cruel elegance by Luc Bondy, is an exquisite Viennese pastry filled with whipped cream and ground glass.’ (Time Out)
‘The play itself lacks any drive, drama or emotion and leaves the actors with nothing to work with. I stayed for the whole play, but I wish I had left.’ (audience comment)
 
While the other two plays produced an equally divided reception, it seems that Bondy’s brilliant reputation impressed the critics but that the work did not win over the British public. I found few who liked it, perhaps because there was no emotion coming off the stage to infect the audience – this is also a phenomenon typical in German theatre.
 
So why these old men, why in London, and why now?
 
Katie Mitchell said that she saw herself in the play when she first read it in her twenties. She had wanted to direct it ever since and now was the right moment. I imagine that the management at the National agreed because it now seems classic Mitchell material, concluding a trilogy of suicide plays (after Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Kroetz’ Wunschkonzert), because it has novelty value, and because it could address a younger audience, several of whom indeed voiced a strong personal association with it.
 
David Lan was proud to have invited Luc Bondy again (after Cruel and Tender in 2004), recognised as the finest interpreter of Schnitzler’s work in Europe today, and I think he should be proud because this was a veritable Anglo-German collaboration.
 
Similar to Helena Kaut-Howson regarding Dea Loher’s Innocence, Annabel Arden felt that a major exposure of Bernhard’s work was long overdue. She and Annie Castledine selected Heldenplatz because ‘the idiosyncracies of the form perfectly represent him as a formally innovative writer’. The themes, too, drew them to the play – Bernhard’s ‘total obsession with Austria’s collusion with Hitler’, the contemporary relevance of the ever-present anti-Semitism, and the importance of giving a voice to a writer so utterly critical of his own country and people, because at present it is ‘very difficult for English writers to be quite as radical in either form or content.’
 
These three productions were unusual for the English stage and, being of equally high quality, reconfirmed a typical view of German theatre – difficult, political, sexual, dark, serious. Some of the themes – the younger generation’s lack of orientation and new tendencies towards racism – are as important as ever, but I do wish that directors would address this relationship more in their work, and I wish that we could put the question of how to live and organise society closer to the present by giving more room on the British stage to younger
European writers.
 
 
*
Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Deborah Warner – National Theatre, September-December 2009

Innocence by Dea Loher, directed by Helena Kaut-Howson – Arcola Theatre – January 2010

Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden – Arcola Theatre – February-March 2010

Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner, directed by Katie Mitchell – National Theatre – October 2009-January 2010

Sunflower House by Anne Rabe, directed by Lydia Ziemke – Tristan Bates Theatre – February-March 2010

Sweet Nothings by Arthur Schnitzler, directed by Luc Bondy – Young Vic Theatre – March-April 2010
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Lydia Ziemke
is a freelance director. See www.suite42.org.
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