Category Archives: General

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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Edinburgh Fringe 2015

fringe

September arrives and yet another Edinburgh Festival sets into the Lothian air. For the first time in over a decade of Fringe-ing, I was up without a show. A strange affair, lacking the adrenaline of other years but certainly made up for by actually having time to hang out with friends, play with their kids, sight-see and, shock-horror, get to bed by midnight every day… a very grown-up affair.

Another big difference this year was not having a performer’s pass (which gets you free entry into other shows at your venue). Normally I’d watch a lot of stand-up, sketch-comedy and circus for free. With a limited budget, I decided to prioritise theatre. In hindsight, perhaps not such a good choice – I now realise how the heady mix of genres is what I so love about the Fringe.

One thing I definitely should have remembered though is how disappointing the International Festival tends to be. With a new Director and what looked like an exceptional line-up, I got sucked in again, booking for Ivo van Hove’s Antigone, Robert Lepage’s 887, Max Richter’s Four Seasons/Memoryhouse and David Greig’s adaptation of Lanark. Yet again though, alongside the vibrancy of the Fringe all these shows just felt bloated and leaden; it’s perhaps no coincidence that my favourite (Lepage’s) was also the most intimate. Many years ago the international festival used to run an exceptional series of late night shows at the Hub. Now it seems that only bigger is better.

I suppose my constant gravitation to the International Festival is part of a bigger dilemma I’ve been facing in my own work. Am I more interested in ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. My pretentious side drags me towards the International Festival, Forest Fringe and Summerhall, where I’m nearly always left cold. Meanwhile, my non-theatre friends take me along to less culturally ‘valid’ work like The Last Great Hunt’s Bruce or The Pajama Men and I have a fantastic time. Which is not to say I don’t like serious work – I thought Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation was exceptional. Too often though I was frustrated by theatre-makers who think their message or artistry trumps their obligations to the audience. Or to put in another way, the biggest lesson I learnt this year was that my tastes aren’t as high-brow as I’d like them to be. Which actually is great. I can stop lying to myself, put down Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Post Dramatic Theatre and focus on creating the work that I do like to watch. Work that is thought-provoking, beautifully created and entertaining.

For example, my other stand out shows were Iphegenia in Splot and The Solid Life of Sugar Water. Both shows revolved around the loss of unborn children, so hardly light subject matter. But both had me laughing, crying, were beautifully staged and left me with a lot to think about. Iphegenia…, probably my stand-out show of the festival, finished with one of the hardest punches I’ve ever experienced. I was in sporadic tears all the way home.

A couple of wider issues also struck me this year. Firstly, I was disappointed about the predominantly introspective nature of the work I saw this year. Maybe I just missed them, but where were the big political shows? For all the shtick comedians get about taking over the fringe, at least some of them seemed concerned about what is going on in the world. Not so for the majority of theatre-makers. Have we all been cowed into submission? Do we think audiences don’t want to face these types of questions? Or has theatre become so middle-class that first-world problems are all that count?

If so, this lack of political will is something the arts are paying for – because if we take Edinburgh as a microcosm of the country at large, we’ve allowed ourselves to be utterly exploited for other people’s gain. Who does fantastically out of the Fringe? It’s not the performers, most of whom go home thousands of pounds in debt, or barely struggling into the next financial year. It’s people like the hoteliers, the shop-keepers, the bar-owners, the restauranteurs, the landlords, the big-name comedians and a handful of lucky shows. There’s been talk of a ‘tourist-tax’ for people visiting Edinburgh in August, which sounds like unworkable nonsense. But why can’t Edinburgh Council fully sponsor the Fringe Society’s running costs so that each company didn’t have to stump up the £295 registration fee? After all, it’s the artists who create the festival and the artists who bring in the business – in any other industry we’d be on commission.

10 Fact About the Arts – from Equity

Equity recently put these together, and I couldn’t have come up with a better argument for continued support for the Arts.

10 Facts About the Arts

The arts = popular:

More people in Britain are engaged in the arts than in Premier League football – between April 2014 and March 2015, 77 per cent of adults had attended or participated in the arts at least once in the previous year (Source – DCMS Taking Part Survey)

 

The arts = jobs:

Employment in music, visual and performing arts stands at nearly a quarter of a million people and has grown by 14% between 2011 and 2013 (Source: ONS)

 

The arts = well being

The Arts on Prescription initiative research study found that engagement with the arts resulted in positive outcomes for 78% of participants, through an increase in mental wellbeing and/or a decrease in social isolation, anxiety or depression: http://artsandminds.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/a-on-p_executive-summary_sp-1.pdf

 

The arts = soft power

The UK is recognised as one of the world’s most adept soft-power states. In a recent global ranking of soft power by the Institute for Government, the UK came top. (Source: The Soft Power 30 global index) Cultural engagement leads to a higher level of trust in the UK, and this is associated with a greater attraction to visit or do business in the UK. (Source – British Council 2012)

 

The arts = ideas

Subsidised theatre fuels risk taking and talent development. The benefits of these in some cases stay within the subsidised sphere, and in others branch out to the commercial theatre sector and wider creative industries (Source CC Skills Publicly-funded arts as an R&D lab for the creative industries?)

 

The arts = growth

The creative industries are important to our economy – worth £77bn or 5% of the UK’s GDP according to the latest figures from DCMS.

 

The arts = regeneration

Arts and cultural education can lead to higher earning and better job prospects, improved wellbeing and regeneration of places (source – Centre for Economics Business Research (CEBR) 2013)

 

The arts = tourism

In 2011, 10 million inbound visits to the UK involved engagement with the arts and culture, representing 32 per cent of all visits to the UK and 42 per cent of all inbound tourism-related expenditure (CEBR 2013). Visit Britain estimate that Britain’s cultural and heritage attractions generate £4.5 billion worth of spending by inbound visitors annually which is the equivalent to more than one quarter of all spending by international visitors.

 

The arts = education

Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree than children from low income families that do not engage in arts activities at school. Engagement in structured arts and  culture improves the cognitive abilities of children and young people (Source: CASE 2010)

 

The arts = community

Participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger (CASE 2015)