Features Published 10 April 2020

A European Theatre Dialogue: Aesthetics and Radicalism

The discussion concludes with an exploration of aesthetics and set design in European theatre; and questions about what it will take for the UK to change.

Natasha Tripney

Ostermeier’s much discussed, muddy Hamlet. Photo: Arno Declair

This piece is the final instalment of a three-part series discussing European theatre, and what the UK can learn from its models, strategies and ways of working. Read the first instalment here, and the second instalment here

Finn den Hertog: I’m interested in talking about design. Often in British theatre, a conceptual decision taken by a director which manifests in the design is seen as a design concept. The explicit metaphors happen in design more than they do in say staging or casting. Director/ designer collaboration in the European model – Van Hove/Verweyveld for example – feels like much more of a symbiotic relationship. The design functions as dramaturgy in a much more apparent way than in a lot of mainstream British work. Not only is it highly aestheticised but it often forces the audience to engage with the play in a very particular way. I’m thinking of the radical simplicity of the designs of Johannes Schütz or Katrine Bracke, which absolutely inform directorial choices and the conceptual direction of travel. This feels like its potentially having more of a moment in UK theatre, perhaps because many of our designers are given the opportunity to work in the big European houses?

Nastazja Somers: Yeah I’ve been often referred to as design-led director… I’m really not sure what that means. I usually collaborate with a team of designers that I trust… I would never say to a designer ‘i want this’, it’s more rooted in exploring the creation of the world together.

Tommo Fowler: But how do we make big design interventions if we’ve got no cash and learn our craft in tiny spaces a lot of the time? (This is obviously slightly facetious, but I do think that younger directors are given access to bigger stages in Europe, and have the space to really explore imaginatively. Like Julien Gosselin is making such massive-scale works at thirty-three!)

Alexandru Istudor: The means of production an artist has access to have a direct impact on the aesthetics of the final production. It’s been said before, but I think the British theatre produces too much theatre under improper working/producing conditions and that aspect has a direct impact on the quality of shows. Most fringe festivals are almost un-curated and they prefer to prioritise quantity over quality – I don’t think anywhere in Europe exists a festival where there’s a get in/get out time of 15-20 min in between shows. Even if you have a budget to realise a decent set design, it’s basically impossible to set it up.

Nastazja Somers: I hear you, alas I think if we focus on the money side of things we lose track of what’s really important. Let’s take the Vault Festival as an example. We are on a low budget there, there’s barely any money, we are all stressed and anxious (I’ve done four shows there) but what I can not for the life of me understand is how everyone approaches the space… I don’t think there’s a tradition in this country of CREATING FOR THE SPACE. So if you walk into one of those underground spaces and think that getting a bed, tables and chairs in is the way to go…Where is the creativity? It’s about how we approach the basics…and space is the foundation, right?

Finn den Hertog: I agree, it’s wholly possible to make radical interventions in British theatre spaces and maybe something that isn’t investigated thoroughly enough a lot of the time. Maybe a slight side point here about architecture: I have always found something thrilling about the iconoclasm of seeing the work we’re discussing on the grand Baroque stages of the European city theatres, whereas here we almost exclusively reserve that work for black boxes, studios and found spaces… Now, this almost certainly relates to a perception about whether that more experimental (there’s that word again) or formally ambitious work is able to fill these big houses here in the UK. But maybe we’ve seen a shift here in recent years too…

Natasha Tripney: One of the connecting elements between a lot of work I’ve seen is the use of mess, as metaphor, as dramaturgical device. Dirt, food, all manner of liquids, in at least one case, piss.

Tommo Fowler: I wondered if we’d talk about this… There’s definitely a greater sense of play with organic matter, isn’t there? But also of nudity and perhaps grotesqueness in general. It’s become a bit of a stereotype now to put mud on the floor and say it’s European, but I do think there’s something really potent in how animalistic it lets the human body be. What I haven’t seen so much of here is actors really using that matter – I think we’re quite culturally timid when it comes to interacting fully with our designs. I hate to go back to the Ostermeier Hamlet, but which of our actors are eating dirt onstage, y’know? There’s no fucking about: if it’s there, use it – and use it fully. It feels like it gives an articulation to the basest experiences of being human and lets us roll around in it, rather than covering up in pretend gentility or slight hints that all isn’t well because the wallpaper’s slightly peeling at the top… (is anyone else bored of that set?)

Alexandru Istudor: I wonder if there’s an issue with the actor’s willingness in the UK to go that far? I heard stories about actors refusing to climb ladders because they seemed not safe (although they were deemed safe by the production team). In most ensembles of actors in Europe there’s a certain feeling of adventurousness where actors try to overcome any obstacles, to test their limits as performers, they have this hunger for things to challenge them and I felt this even when I worked in Romania. Most of them welcome the challenges and to be pushed out of their comfort zone within a creative framework.

Tommo Fowler: But then there’s an interesting aesthetic clash between that and the other ‘European style’ of cold, white walls – something really stripped back and sparse, almost like a gallery space…

Finn den Hertog: I don’t know if that’s an aesthetic clash necessarily. Both allow space for a more elemental quality in performance. The dirt and piss and blood and nakedness reminds us that fundamentally what we are dealing with in any piece of theatre is (or should be) raw humanity. I’m paraphrasing here but I’m sure Johannes Schutz says something in his book of interviews about how the first question you have to ask yourself as a designer is why aren’t the actors naked? The stripped back sterilised spaces do the same thing in another way, since we’re left with nothing but bodies and words. I often think about how much I’d love to see British theatre embrace repetition of a single material on stage the way Katrine Brack does – design that is just trees or confetti or snow or smoke.

Nastazja Somers: I wonder if this has to do with our approach towards audiences? I trained as an actor here first, and the thing that was being pushed on us all the time was ‘remember, your audiences are always 10 steps behind you’…I found that approach really patronising but years later I can honestly say this is how a lot of people think of their audiences. If you are constrained by these type of questions, your creativity will be limited. Also symbolism as a tool has a long history in Poland because our theatre scene is intrinsically connected to us fighting the oppressor, so whilst some things could not be OPENLY SAID from the stage, they could be said through symbolism, metaphors etc.

Tommo Fowler: This is really fascinating, Nastazja – d’you think British theatre has suffered by just being really low-stakes? We haven’t needed to code meaning into the work – and the closest we’ve got, really, to rebellion is a few double entendres to titillate against the censor back in the day…

Nastazja Somers: Yes and is quite visible when you unpick British people’s relationship to theatre. I was reading Tynan’s diaries and a few years after the National opened he was lamenting about how difficult it is to convince British audiences that theatre can belong to them. So again, who is this work for and what is it for? I find it fascinating that the first thing the Nash chooses to stream during a national crisis is a farce. Imagine having that reach and still not have the urgency to scream, revolt and provoke?

Finn den Hertog: Bread and circuses innit. Though – to be a bit contrary here – it’s interesting that previously [in the first instalment of this dialogue] we were talking about that quality of liveness in European performers. The wave and the wink to the audience that we find so thrilling. Isn’t that what James Corden’s doing too in One Man, Two Guvnors? Obviously it becomes cynical after a certain amount of time. The staged corpses, the planted audience members. But I saw the Schaubuhne Richard III in Edinburgh and then again at the Barbican and Lars Eidinger repeated the same waves and winks six months later.

Alexandru Istudor: I was talking to Nastazja this morning about the plant audience member in One Man Two Guvnors and how telling that is for the relationship between performers and audience members in the UK – it’s just another artifice. Whereas in Germany for example, they would never do that, they would pick on the audience. At the end of the day, I think it’s something about realness and truthfulness. Yes, Corden displays some realness and liveness in that show, but it’s incredibly rehearsed and choreographed and controlled. It feels like such a wasted opportunity for an actor who obviously possesses the ability to genuinely connect to an audience.

Nastazja Somers: Yes, to everything being said, including the remark about liveness of farce. But are the stakes high enough?

Alexandru Istudor: The stakes are not high enough not even when dramas are staged on the British stages.

Alice Kornitzer: In the UK, we have mainly two reference points of artistic origin in regards to the actor’s presence onstage; Stanislavksi and Shakespeare. In other words, realism/naturalism and tradition. There are many speculations as to why the UK industry finds it so hard to break away from them, but the obvious ones are English tradition (and I know colonialism has already been mentioned), audience development (that’s what they want to see) and sure-fire hits (the pressure of meeting box office targets). This is, of course, extremely simplistic, as avant garde does not need to be acrimonious to any of that. But in a system that puts the financial burden of productions on the artist and companies more so than theatres and their producing endeavours, it quickly becomes a vicious circle.

And that’s kinda why the fringe in the UK is so important – it is the platform for exploration of form and context, but very few artists can survive there financially and often the expectation is that not everyone is paid, let alone that a profit can be made. When we then move on to the subsidised sector, we find ourselves back in the realm of ticket sales as the main form of income, and outreach work to balance the books, which often takes the form of educational programmes. Those need aligning with the national schools’ curriculums and we’re back to Shakespeare.

Why is this not the case across Europe? Because other practitioners have left their marks on the work so severely, so progressively, that Stanislavsky and Shakespeare are merely starting points. Artists such as Reinhardt, Genet, Artaud, Brooke, Zadek, Bausch (the list goes on and on) have left such big impressions in terms of the philosophy of creative process and aesthetics that next generations didn’t go back to previous forms but kept building. Why? The discourse is a different one. The questions are placed on actor and space, designer and director, post-war/post-theatre, digital revolution/isolation of humxn etc etc so that each piece has its own philosophical debate rooted in that world, not in sure-fire hits, entertainment value, and explosivity over short runs. These are all fundamental questions of humanity and society, currently and at large, and therefore are awarded that sensitivity in approach, but also in development. If a piece runs for several years, it needs very different structures than a play needs for a four to six week run. The underlying philosophy is completely different.

Alexandru Istudor: To add something in relation to the aesthetic dimension of the work, yes, the aesthetics are very different in continental Europe. I always tend to associate theatre in Germany, for example, with a huge mess, in a great way: a mess of means and tools they use when staging work, a messy way of telling ‘stories’. All these contribute to a much more sensorial theatrical experience, whereas in the UK there’s this image of an aesthetic ‘tidiness’ (including the structure of plays) and it probably goes back to this tradition of literalism that exists in this country.

Alice Kornitzer: Susanne Kennedy, a new hit on the German theatre scene, originally from Holland, thinks a lot about how the German actor and their vocality. So, as a result, her first productions didn’t have any speaking actors onstage at all. All text was pre-recorded, and the actors wearing (rather pornographic) masks carefully choreographed therein. So here, the actors and the audience were forced to communicate through body language and a total visual aspect of text and performance.

On a different note, there are prolific British directors who copy continental work. We all take inspiration from others but there are limits. For instance, one production used all the staging devices from a German production years earlier, but nudity in Germany is neither new nor shocking. So the shock factor became the basis for the UK director here. Not necessarily the idea that when we all lose our clothes, no one is perfect and we all show ugliness and shame in our own ways. What was a philosophy turned into profanity.

A few years ago, the Young Vic borrowed a lot of their production concept for An Enemy of the People from Ostermeier’s version of the previous Schaubuehne version. It worked in parts. Mainly, in my view, as the crux of Ibsen’s final act at the Schaubuehne opened the discussion up, literally, to the audience. I saw it in Berlin and it was riveting to see the audience insulting and debating the characters. This wouldn’t work in the UK, unless the production is already framed as immersive, which at the Young Vic it was not, nor would its audience at the time necessarily go along with that – it is not part of the habit of the viewing culture. Nor is live feedback. Philosophy and history can’t be ignored; much like writers think about conventions that the audience, even subconsciously, are familiar with and then subverts them.

Finn den Hertog: What about the fact that there’s something of a feedback loop happening within the UK and certain European theatres at the moment? Dead Centre working at the Schaubuhne, for example; Robert Icke making work at the Almeida which very much looks and feels like something you might see on a stage in Amsterdam and then being invited to go and make work for those stages. Joe Hill Gibbins has long been a champion of a European style of working in mainstream UK theatre and has gone on to direct various productions in Germany (sidepoint: I’m personally very excited to see someone with as overt a love for European work as Joe take over as AD of a major UK company). Must British directors recreate European tropes to be recognised and lauded in Europe? And on the flipside, the big European directors who have found critical and commercial success here – Ostermeier, Van Hove – are those that work to an extent in an Anglo-American style…

Alexandru Istudor: No, I don’t think in order to be recognised in ‘Europe’ you need to recreate the form of work being made there. The directors you mentioned above have all been influenced at some point in their careers by different (European) theatrical cultures; Germany welcomes them all. Katie Mitchell is probably closer to the model of the Eastern European director, at least in terms of directing actors, while Joe Hill Gibbins is much more influenced by the visual side and the tropes you encounter a lot in the German theatre.

However, in continental Europe, and especially in Germany, I think they value and cherish artists who managed to develop their own aesthetics/style and who try to establish themselves as ‘auteurs’. I do agree with you that the only European directors invited in this country are the ones who are much closer as a style to the British theatre.

Teunkie van der Sluijs: Having worked in both cultures, what really strikes me as fundamentally different is how directors talk about their work. European directors tend to talk about the issues or questions or societal matters that intrigue them, fire them up, haunt them – and how they use theatre to exorcise and investigate them. But often, British directors will look for the world in the play: they look to make links from the play to the here-and-now to validate their staging it. It leads to a kind of limited directorial intervention, for instance transposing a play to a different story world – Hamlet in the corporate world. And then they “do the play.” But those European directors seek the play that answers their hunger to explore bigger ideas and questions.

A big and important part of that is the director-designer-dramaturg triangle, where the metaphors in which the director is going to speak for this particular production are developed.

Alice Kornitzer: This is so true, and unfortunately it’s a trap for directors when we’re developing our craft. I often found that I had to box myself in to be understood and when that was fed back to me I just thought, ‘No, that’s the last thing that interests me about making theatre.’

Mark Leipacher: I think this idea of design / aesthetic / metaphor is also connected to the integrated approach – the ability to have the designer in the rehearsal room. This also allows material to be played with – how can it be used? What can be discarded? What’s essential? The idea of essential matter is something that I find a fundamental part of European theatremaking, contrasted with the picturesque nature of design in the UK, yet the UK perception of European theatre is that it is often ‘aesthetic based’ or ‘style over substance’.

Rafaella Marcus: It’s funny because I think if you said to any director in the UK ‘theatre is metaphor’, they would not disagree with you. So what is getting lost in the gap between thought and staging? If you take the fustiest, most trad West End staging of, say, a drawing room comedy, even that director would most likely tell you they believe in theatricality and unreality. So is it that we lack a critical engagement with what those ideas mean? Exposure to other forms of work? Or is it purely capitalist and in the end we’re all under the economic pressure?

I’m thinking specifically of advice I was once given by a very established director: ADs hire freelance directors who they think will deliver. There is a feeling that if you want to work consistently the best thing you can be is “a safe pair of hands”.

Alexandru Istudor: And in that case I assume they have a very exact idea of what ‘safe’ means?

Rafaella Marcus: This might be horribly unfair to ADs but I think a lot of the time critical (good reviews), commercial (full houses) and audience (existing audience will return, maybe the show pulls in new audiences) success gets ranked above pushing boundaries in the list of priorities (the argument would be that this is necessary for survival) so yes, I think ‘safe’ in its broadest sense means someone who will deliver on the first three. The hole in that is that pushing boundaries doesn’t *need* to be distinct from those first three things, and some ADs know that, and they’re really showing up the rest of them.

Alexandru Istudor: Actually I think if we talk about any ‘progress’, I think in set design there have been some changes in the last ten years in the UK, with some artists starting to present more conceptual set designs rather than just illustrative or functional designs. I think the main issue is how some of those existing conceptual designs get to be used by actors. It still feels, even when there’s a great design idea, that they don’t explore it fully. Finn mentioned earlier the name of a great German set designer, an absolute genius of minimalism, Johannes Schutz, and he designed quite a few shows in the UK and every time I saw a show with a design by him but in a British production, I always felt there was a limit up to which that space was used and explored.

Alice Kornitzer: That’s a very interesting observation! I think the British actor training feeds into that as well, which is very frontal, that is to say, very audience focused, and often glues actors to the downstage edge. This has the effect that the set, the world they’re in, frames them more than they become part of it. On the continent, the acting craft involves training in line with ‘world’, so predominantly space. Bringing them downstage then really makes a point of something. I find, though, that this level of exploration, the freedom of it, is happening more and more at drama schools, especially if you look at what directors are now going in to direct the showcases. It’s beginning to push up and once the ‘fear of contradiction’ drops away I think we’ll see drastic changes.

Finn den Hertog: I’m trying to hit on something about the way we cast in the UK and how that tends to avoid metaphor and symbolism too. We see the casting of specific actors very much as signifier and not signified (or do I mean vice versa?) There’s that Brecht quote about the way we cast a play “as if all cooks were fat…all lovers were pretty” and I think that there’s a real sense of that in the casting in UK theatre. Maybe that’s largely the same in European work but I instinctively think not?

Alice Kornitzer: I mean, just look at Ostermeier’s Hamlet. And then, in comparison, you have Cumberbatch, the Moriarty actor (name escapes me now), occasionally, a female-identifying actor… They’re all romanticised.

Rafaella Marcus: Finn, I massively agree. I keep trying to formulate an idea around how we can do better by ‘non-conforming’ bodies (a term I am not thrilled with) onstage, by which I mean bodies that we are less used to automatically granting interiority to – fat/disabled/not white/trans and other intersects. It is exactly that Brecht thing of ‘all lovers are pretty’ – the thin white cis Juliet has become the ‘neutral’ choice and I can’t imagine even the subsidised houses who are pushing to do more interesting stagings casting e.g. a fat nb Juliet, even though that would be rad. The problem persists to the extent where it feels like if you do pursue that casting, you’re offering that actor up to the slaughter – they become very exposed and vulnerable to comment, as we have seen from openly racist press only in the last year.

Nastazja Somers: I think a lot of issues with casting in this country come from the need to sell tickets, right? So capitalism comes up again…

We are talking about all these things that constrain us… But how much of it is actually STOPPING US and how much of it is us buying into the system? We all could do with a bit more Audre Lorde and her ‘Your silence will not protect you’ wisdom. Just a provocation I’m throwing at everyone, myself included!

Alexandru Istudor: I agree. That’s why I think we should all ask ourselves – what can we do as individuals to change things? Rather than focusing on the things that constrain us. I am always a bit wary when someone uses the financial argument to explain why real change never happens.

Alice Kornitzer: I think that is a very fair point. I made a choice to not work in Germany at the time and come to UK. Although I am not that sure anymore. And the financial argument does feed into that to some extent; artists that are developing have a huge burden to also finance their work. It’s the shoehorn thing again. How quickly do you want to define your body of work? But I wouldn’t have come to UK if I didn’t think it would be possible. It’s a constant internal debate and challenge.

Rafaella Marcus: I’m finding it really funny how me and the other British artists have gone quiet in response to the above. Probably because you’re right? The only thing I can say is that I’m tired. I’m tired of being told ‘no’ to, I’m tired of being constantly surprised by the conservatism I encounter in people in positions of power, I’m tired of conversations with ADs that go ‘we like this but we can’t programme it because we’ve already done x/y/z piece this year’. But then I think – those people are tired too, and likely afraid. Of the board, of the audiences, of the theatre going under. It’s interesting we keep discussing UK theatre as being ‘safe’ when in another sense right now what’s been exposed is its incredible fragility. [this is a personal response obviously and I don’t mean to speak for anyone else]

Alexandru Istudor: It’s probably a very tricky time to discuss drastic changes, but one could argue that we could use this time to reflect more on the financial and producing model so that we avoid in future, as industry, to become so exposed to similar crises? In any crisis there is also an opportunity to use that for some form of resurgence/rebirth or at least to reflect more about the state of things and the change we need. We are obviously doing this together as ‘outsiders’ but I wonder to what extent any conversations like this happen at a ‘higher level’ -ADs and so on.

Alice Kornitzer: I think it’s the best time to discuss change and encourage a no-return-to-normal narrative. This situation now, that we all find ourselves in collectively, prolific or not, has highlighted how incredibly fragile the usually rigid-seeming structures are, and that those are simply not sustainable for artists.

Nastazja Somers: I was doing this thread on Polish online theatre on twitter, and I mentioned Klata and how he lost his tenure as AD because he dedicated all his work to fighting the right wing nutters that Poland brought upon itself. And Tarek Iskander commented how much of a shame it is that he lost the building but I was thinking to myself that Klata knew exactly what he was doing, and in a way him losing the position is an act of defiance in itself. This is why I often get so confused, apart from the Emma Rice situation, I can’t recall any instances when an AD was pushed away in this country? I’m just wondering if sometimes all that fear is self imposed…But I hear you on being tired. Tired is valid, but let’s not be afraid.

Alexandru Istudor: The example with Klata is very telling, Nastazja. I also hope it can serve as an example of how ‘dangerous’ theatre making can be in some countries from Europe. In comparison, democratic institutions in the UK are very stable. I do not understand why an artist would be afraid in this country.

This piece is the final instalment of a three-part series discussing European theatre, and what the UK can learn from its models, strategies and ways of working. Read the first instalment here, and the second instalment here

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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