In February, Schaubühne Berlin return to our stage bringing two new performances, Beware of Pity, with Complicite and Richard III. Andrew Haydon visits the Schaubühne in Berlin to learn more about how the theatre space itself and the audience themselves impact on a performance…
A common first reaction of British pilgrims to the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz – set back, slightly from West Berlin’s Bond Street-like Kurfurstendamm – is initial disappointment. And, yes, compared to the futuristic neo-gothic classicism of East Berlin’s Volksbühne, or the chocolate boxy charms of Deutsches Theater, the Schaubühne is a markedly less impressive building. Housed in low-rise ex-cinema – curiously reminiscent of the waiting rooms at Dollis Hill – its exterior belies its reach.
It is, however, home to what are possibly two of the best theatre spaces in Europe. The main house, is just a simple rake of seats in a long, adaptable black hall, but there’s a elegance about the proportions and a sheer feeling of democracy. Then there’s the second, smaller studio space. A curved concrete wall facing a small raked bank of seats; stark and minimalist, and yet still somehow spacious and comfortable. For the original production of Richard III, Ostermeier and his designer, Jan Pappelbaum changed the configuration of Saal C; bolting balconies onto the curved concrete wall and building a raised thrust stage, creating a kind of bunker-chic Globe.
They are emotional and intellectual athletes, open-minded, and unafraid to be critical of work, or of directors, in lucid and intelligent terms
There is also the fact of the permanent ensemble. Very few British theatres have such a thing any more, and here’s something hugely appealing about a company who already know each other well, have worked together hundreds of times, and have a pre-proven chemistry. Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel of Dead Centre, whose pieces Lippy and Chekhov’s First Play played at the Schaubühne’s FIND Festival this year describe it thus: ‘The ensemble is unlike anything we can know. We haven’t worked with them (yet), but we do know a bunch of them and they are genuinely fascinated by directors and by different processes. They are emotional and intellectual athletes, open-minded, and unafraid to be critical of work, or of directors, in lucid and intelligent terms, because they know they will never be involved in a project without integrity.’ Similarly, Katie Mitchell (several of whose productions from the Schaubühne have been shown at the Barbican) agrees, ‘when I came here: if you say to German actors, I would like to do ten minutes of naturalistic action forwards. And then backwards. They completely are interested in whether that is do-able and how to do it…’
But perhaps the most appealing thing for British directors working at the Schaubühne are the audiences. Talking to Katie Mitchell ahead of her première of Atmen at the Schaubühne, she noted: ‘The Germans are very serious intellectuals. They’re very serious about culture, and its function, and its purpose. That sets the bar very high for anything you make. It’s scrutinised at a very high and intense level and not for superficial factors.’
Comparing her experience of German audiences to British ones: ‘They wanted to know how far a staging would go and how thorough it would be. The moments of frustration from the viewer were to do with the lack of thoroughness of the execution of the idea… For example I did try a lot in the UK to investigate time and memory and perception in that way by using different speeds but it was misunderstood, I think, or maybe I executed it poorly, so the UK critics got very tired of it and called it ‘a trope’ – like a stylistic device that you would repeat for the sake of it. Of course, that wasn’t my aim. Whereas here in Germany the audiences find that very engaging because they realise that it’s an investigation of an idea, not ‘a wilful trope’.’
The current team have continued to provoke and challenge, but not in an obnoxious way: the audience comes with high expectations…
It’s striking that Dead Centre also note the audiences: ‘The audience is bright, caring, intelligent, think nothing of arguing with the work, but always, always, always engage. There is a huge history at the Schaubühne, but the current team have continued to provoke and challenge, but not in an obnoxious way: the audience comes with high expectations…’
But there’s also what attracts these audiences in the first place. Dead Centre again: ‘The programme is eclectic and represents only ‘the best work from the best artists that this brilliant team of programmers want to see.’ And all those programmers, and dramaturgs, and producers, positively buzz with the energy and intelligence of people who are all working to make something that is alive. Thomas Ostermeier is a hugely generous and nurturing presence for them; this is obvious. Thomas has said that if he is the worst artist working at the Schaubuhne then he has done his job well. And yet, all the artists who work there think ‘if I can make work worthy of this theatre I will have done my job well.’
That symbiosis, that constructive provocation lies at the heart of why it is such an energising place to work. Ostermeier is a supremely calm artist, he knows he has his own mission, and therefore he can genuinely invite people who do things completely outside of his skill set and challenge them to make something he couldn’t. It is a relationship completed by the audience who fill the seats night in and night out.’
Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin present Beware of Pity (Ungeduld des Herzens) on 9–12 February
Richard III follows from 16–19 February
Learn more about Schaubühne Berlin’s architecture on their website.