Features Guest Column Published 3 April 2013

Jung at Heart

In the first of a series on European directors, Ashley Scott-Layton looks at the relationship between Sebastian Nübling and the Junges Theatre Basel.
Ashley Scott-Layton

“Hey Voodoo Asshole! Here it comes!”

The ball rises into the air and is slapped across the room, pelting towards the face of Nico Herzig. Ducking just in time, the ball zips over his head, pounding back off a concrete wall and towards fourteen-year-old Yoshi. The German boy calmly waits for the ball he know will fall just short, then kicks it full force back at the man who unleashed it: Sebastian Nübling. Internationally renowned theatre director.

Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, bordering both France and Germany. Sitting proudly beside the Rhine in Kleinbasel is the Kasernenareal, an impressive military barracks turned cultural centre. It is here, in a modest 108 seat theatre nestled amongst the schools and bars, that you will find the Junges Theatre Basel. The cast of Morning, JTB’s latest production, are playing foursquare as a warm up before rehearsals. Spurred on by Nübling, they play with an unrelenting confidence and a refusal to hold back, an attitude which is the lifeblood of their theatre.

Sweaty and smiling, the cast finish playing and follow their director from the foyer onto the stage. The theatre is a fairly standard studio space, though perhaps barer and brighter than those English studios swaddled in black floors and tabs. Nothing grand, but it plays David amongst the state-funded Goliaths of German-speaking theatre, consistently punching above its weight. Since 1977 this has been the home of breathtaking work, a young peoples’ theatre which draws admirers from around the country and across the borders. Sebastian Nübling is associated with several Goliaths himself, and perhaps the presence of this acclaimed director is testament to JTB’s reputation. On the other hand, it was with JTB that he first found acclaim.

After working with his independent company of actors and musicians Theatre Mahogany for eight years, Nübling walked into the JTB to direct Die Nächte der Schwestern Brontë in 1997. After this, whilst also working across the river at the formidable Basel Theatre, he returned to JTB to direct Disco Pigs. The production toured theatres across neighboring Germany, awarding Nübling his first major recognition in his homeland. An invitation to the hallowed Berliner Theatertreffen soon followed with his production of John Gabriel Borkmann, the starting pistol of his international career.  While working extensively across Europe, Nübling has maintained a continuing relationship with JTB, creating 17 shows in seven years.

In 2003 Nübling, in a co-production with Staatstheater Stuttgart, directed his eighth production with JTB: Herons by Simon Stephens. It was the first time director and company would tackle the work of the British writer. Since then, Nübling has worked with Stephens six times; three of these were international premieres, the other three collaborations with JTB. When Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, saw the Nübling/JTB production of Punk Rock, he was determined that Stephens, an associate of the Lyric, should write a play for the Lyric Young Company. The result, Morning, initially developed with young actors from both the Lyric Hammersmith and JTB, would receive its English premier at the Traverse Theatre in August 2012, followed by a run  at the Lyric Hammersmith. Then it would be Nübling’s turn.

“I’m gunna school that bitch.”

In the final moments of the morning’s rehearsal, Lukas Stäuble, drafted in from a local gypsy band, rasps into a microphone, contributing to the musical omnipresence groping the production. This, a record by Zebra Katz, is one of many which Nübling with his impressive cultural knowledge has let loose amongst Stephens’ words. With barely a quiet moment, Nübling has created a house party, an exciting on stage environment which has been fed by hours of improvisation. In their search for the perfect language, director and cast have created a world where cocaine flour is poured from beaten beer cans into hungry, screaming mouths. It’s a fun environment, but true to the material it’s also full of violence and sex.

Nübling is considerate with his actors but he isn’t timid; the thaasophobic director regularly makes sudden suggestions, which have resulted in everything from characters dry humping each other to self-produced dubstep beats or spontaneously fighting with planks of wood. You wonder whether we would get away with directing young people like this in the UK. Undoubtedly there is a link between the electrifying power of the work and Nübling’s very thin kid gloves.

When it hits lunch o’clock, Nübling retreats with the rest of the cast and crew into the foyer, where a large communal table has been set up.  Ana, the cook, is employed for the duration of the rehearsal process. Nübling relaxes and jokes with everyone as Ana presents soup, lasagna and desert. Afterwards, it is the director who does the washing up.

After the tables are put away, Nübling heads back in with his hand-picked cast. Privileged by working with some of the best permanent ensembles in the world, the director avoids auditioning actors. Instead, Uwe and Simone, who run the theatre and have known many of the actors for years, help Nübling pick those they feel would bring something interesting. Some of these young actors have left school and are in that uncertain time before further training or work. Others are still at school but allowed time off; projects such as these are seen as legitimate reasons to suspend studies in Switzerland. Nübling has created an exciting ensemble, harnessing rather than denying their chaotic energy. The show is dangerous, but the environment is safe. After rehearsals, the cast hang around, Nico and Nübling discussing character:

“A voodoo asshole?”
“Jah”
“Jah! Cool.”

The silence following the final moment of the premier is ruptured by exhaustive applause. An audience made up of emissaries of the theatrical establishment have once again adored the work of Nübling and JTB. Then, when the critics and VIPs have drunk enough and gone home, in the early hours of the morning another ferocious game of foursquare begins.

Relentless.

Ashley Scott-Layton is a writer, director and founder of Ravenrock. He recently finished as the resident assistant director at the Lyric Hammersmith and was the associate director on Morning by Simon Stephens. He is currently developing projects with Ravenrock as well hanging out with theatre companies across Europe. The account of these travels can be found on his blog, Chasing the Trickster.

The influence of European theatre practice is currently being investigated through a series of performances, talks and workshops as part of Firehouse Creative Productions’ All Change festival at Theatre503. For more information, visit the Theatre503 website.

Photo: Ashley Scott-Layton

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Ashley Scott-Layton is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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