A few gross generalisations about British versus German theatre

Vienna

Tales from Vienna Wood at the Deutsches Theater, directed by Michael Thalheimer

This year I made two trips to watch theatre in Germany, mainly in Berlin. Both trips were fascinating and exciting, and this post attempts to describe some of the differences I noticed between the UK and German theatre cultures. Two caveats should be borne in mind:

1. This post is based on about twenty productions seen over four weeks, so not exactly a large sample size. Also I don’t speak German, so am inherently biased towards shows with surtitles, or shows based on well known plays. When I did get to more radical offerings (eg my two trips to the Volksbuhne) I had NO idea what was going on. Which was kind of interesting in itself, but didn’t exactly allow me judge the work on a deep level.

2. This post could be taken as a massive criticism of British theatre. As I’ll discuss at the end, there are lots that I think we do well – especially when it comes to popular entertainment. I also think that there is a growing desire to do things differently here. What I realised in Berlin was just how conservative our mainstream theatre scene is. The nearest analogy I can think of is to English football twenty years ago, when everyone was stuck in 4-4-2. Or British food thirty years ago, when everything revolved around meat and two veg.

Photos of all the shows from my most recent trip are at www.pinterest.com/johnhcwalton/december-berlin-trip.

– A unique live event
Brits love plays, Germans love theatre; it’s a subtle difference, but a crucial one. Whereas in Britain we place a huge emphasis on literary merit, German theatre makers take as much inspiration from dance, music, philosophy and the visual arts. In England, we ‘serve the text’. In Germany, the text inspires a live event that is unique and artistically valuable in its own right. It’s not that the text isn’t important in Germany, it’s just that it’s considered one element of the many that make up a live performance.

– Hard work
British theatre has a gentle relationship to the audience that tends to emphasise narrative, comedy, sentimentality and an emotional connectivity between character and audience. Germany theatre is not relaxing, and it’s rarely ‘fun’; there is a mistrust of narrative, and the work is often frustrating and exhausting. As an audience member you’re expected to work, to make up you own mind about the playwright and the director’s intentions.

– Diversity
Directors in Germany have very individual approaches, and the result is an incredible diversity of theatrical styles. If you want absurdist pop, go see Rene Pollesch; psychological realism, head to Stephan Kimmig; something that straddles the line between genius and egotistical anarchy, check out Frank Carstof; perhaps you like your theatre hard, unsentimental and suffused with echoes of Greek tragedy? then Michael Thalheimer might be the director for you. The list goes on. In England we disparagingly refer to this as “director’s theatre”, but why should the writer be the only creative force in theatre? Why shouldn’t we go to the theatre to see the artistry of a great director? Yes, sometimes the ego of an untalented director destroys, but when it works, great directors are brilliant artists in their own right, exploding the text onto the stage with a kind of delirious brilliance.

– Bold acting choices
In the UK there’s an emphasis on making subtle, nuanced acting choices. In comparison, I love how bold German actors are – when they play something, they really GO for it: when they are desperate, their is genuine panic on their faces, when they are cruel, they can be pitiless. Yes, they all seem a bit nuts and spend a lot of time naked and shouting, but it’s incredibly exciting to watch.

– Contemporaneity
There’s something incredibly urgent about German theatre. Like Britain, much of the new writing is highly political. Unlike Britain the priority of revivals is not to revel in literary triumphs of the past, but to interrogate life as we live and construct it today. Dialogue is modernized, plots adapted to the present day, time-specific references updated and contemporary texts interpolated. The idea of doing a piece in period costume is practically anathema. In contrast, critics in the UK pounce on any director that takes a more conceptual approach or dares to meddle with centuries-old texts. What we’re left with are often little more than museum pieces.

– Aesthetics and atmosphere
German theatre is deeply atmospheric and stunningly beautiful. Yes there’s more money for set and costumes, but equally I think there’s a much more romantic notion of theatre-making that cherishes considerations of aesthetics, mood and mystery.

[Side note: Apparently there are two broad types of designers in Germany. Those that work closely with the director to achieve a unified vision, and those that talk very little with the director, and just hand over a design with a kind of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude. I kind of love this, because it exemplifies a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach.]

– Rationalism vs complexity
In Britain we get annoyed when we don’t understand something quickly (just look at the near-ubiquity of audioguides in art galleries). In theatre, this often results in a demand for easily comprehensible narratives in which complex situations are reduced to opposing sides of a dramatic conflict. German theatre tends towards the messy, complex, incomprehensible and mysterious – but is that not a truer reflection of life?

– A culture of risk
I recently watched the BBC’s ‘On Stage’ series about regional theatres across the UK. On the whole, I found it immensely depressing. With huge funding cuts, our theatres are limping on with enough subsidy to survive, but little capacity to take risks; commercial models are celebrated, and subconsciously we’re all chasing the West End transfer that might save our finances. In Germany, generous subsidies and limited opportunities for commercial exploitation have created a theatre culture that rewards risk. You might say, ‘lucky German theatres with their big subsidies’, but compared to many other countries, we do still subsidise the arts generously. We just seem to spend to spend huge amounts of it on stale versions of an ever-diminishing repertoire…

– The grass is greener?
It’s easy to be excited by the novelty of wildly different work, but I’ll admit that after two weeks in Berlin I was gagging for a bit of Alan Ayckbourn. German theatre is aggressively intellectual, highly conceptual and hard work on the audience. What’s more, the industry seems to be horrendously dominated by white, middle-class, male directors; there’s little ethnic diversity amongst actors; and the theatre buildings themselves can often feel bare and underused – temples of high art as opposed to all-round community resources.

As my own work shows, sometimes I just want to laugh, relax, have fun, enjoy a good story and forget about how difficult everyday life can be. British theatre excels at this. What’s more, at its best, British theatre can be insightful, beautiful AND entertaining at the same time. I just think it’s a shame that we relegate risky, difficult work to the fringe, or occasional imports at the Barbican. The Schaubuhne this month premiered new productions by two of the UK’s finest directors – Katie Mitchell and Simon McBurney. Those productions will make their way here eventually, but it’s a sad reflection on our cultural ambitions that their talent, and the inspiration they might give, is slowly being drained overseas.

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