Thomas Ostermeier: Internationally Unconventional

He's messed with everything he touches – the conventions of German theatre, the text-is-king approach to Shakespeare. As Matt Trueman discovers, German director Thomas Ostermeier is always searching for a sweet spot between form and story

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Thomas Ostermeier
Published 21 August 2016

British theatre loves German theatre. For the last five years or so, young Brits have looked to Berlin for inspiration. Its stages seem swaggering and rigorous; defiantly non-literal and inherently theatrical. Our own theatre has shifted in response. "German" has become a byword for "good".

In fact, British audiences have seen precious little German theatre – most of it the work of one man: Thomas Ostermeier. For many, Ostermeier is German theatre. His chopped-up texts and contemporary revisions, his pop soundtracks and visceral stagings have come to stand for the whole.

For audiences raised on RSC-style reverence, Ostermeier’s theatre can be thrilling and fresh. His Doll’s House ended not with a door slam, but with gunshots. His Enemy of the People opened out into a real, unscripted public debate. His Hamlet, a fat manchild mucking about in the mud, got stuck on repeat, endlessly asking that age-old question: “To be or not to be?” This month, Edinburgh audiences have the chance to see his reinvention of Richard III.

Only, by his own admission, Ostermeier is “not particularly German” as directors go. “Usually, in German theatre, you have a lot of very advanced aesthetic or formal experiments without any storytelling, or you have”—this is in the commercial theatre, Germany’s West End—“very old-fashioned, conventional theatre that’s just telling a story. There’s nothing in between.”

Nothing, that is, but Ostermeier. After Brecht, German theatre tended to pick itself apart; showing its mechanics until only the mechanics remained. This "post-dramatic theatre" often ended up dispensing with plot altogether. Ostermeier has sought to restore it, describing himself as “the deconstructionists’ little brother”, and piecing together the theatre they’d taken apart.

“Story’s interesting,” he explains on the phone from Berlin. “Drama provides the possibility of talking about what’s behind the mask of civilisation. We all, in our daily lives, appear to be nice, smart, sympathetic people – but this isn’t the complete truth. Put people in a dramatic situation and they can’t hold their masks constantly. Then you see what’s behind.”

That puts an emphasis on acting – none too common in a directors’ theatre where Regies [German directors] rule the roost. His Hamlet, Lars Eidinger has said, “I know no other director who puts the actor as much at the centre of their work.” By British standards, Ostermeier’s deemed a conceptualist, but he sees himself squarely as an actors’ director. “You could even call me a coach.” His company, the Schaubühne, and its actors are at the core of this work and he cites Simon McBurney as a major influence. It meant a lot when Ostermeier finally tempted him to Berlin, last year, to stage Stefan Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity.

Ostermeier started out as an actor himself, but quit, aged 24, to take up directing. “I was too tall,” he laughs, only half-joking. At 6’4”, his love scenes were laughable and tragic heroes were off the table. “It was always ridiculous.”

The experience did, however, fire him up against Germany’s old-guard. “I didn’t want to be in these shows with bad costumes, bad sets, bad music; old directors who didn’t know what they wanted to say to an audience, just taking care of their careers for the end of the biographies.”

Two years after training, at only 28, Ostermeier took over the Barracke, a makeshift, flexible studio space, causing a splash with stripped-back stagings of 'in-yer-face' British plays by writers like Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Success won him the Schaubühne gig three years later, a move that sent shockwaves through cultural Berlin. He was 31, impossibly young in a city where artistic directors stick around for decades. With designer Jan Pappelbaum, Ostermeier split the Schaubühne’s vast aircraft-hanger space—90 metres long, 40 wide—into three studios, each endlessly reshapeable. “There is no better theatre building in the world. It’s as simple as that.”

Under Ostermeier, it has looked outwards. He has brought the world’s best directors, from Katie Mitchell to Simon Stone, to Berlin, and committed to extensive international touring. “A lot of German directors don’t want to be part of that. They’re happy with their role in Hamburg or Frankfurt.” Ostermeier, for his part, wants to take a local view to “a bigger, global community".

“Berlin has this aura—like London in the sixties or Paris in the fifties—and we’re profiting from that reputation. When people invite my shows, they’re inviting some of that Berlin hype as well.”

The key, he says, is specificity. Theatre’s a local art form, forged in its own time and place; its cultural milleau and its moment. “You can make references and find parallels, but if you try to talk to an international audience in a globalised way, that’s a trap. It doesn’t work.”

At the same time, though, Ostermeier recognises that theatre “is more and more globalised”. Young directors, he says, “have seen all the continent’s so-called major artists. They’ve travelled. They’ve watched it on YouTube. They’re completely up on what’s out there, so much so that you can’t even consider them British or German any more.”

What, then, does a British history play look like in that context? Ostermeier’s not fussed. “It’s the psychology of the character that interests me. I’m interested in evil: how this man makes an entertainment of evil.”

Sure enough, his Richard—Lars Eidinger again, “a smart, nice, charming guy who’s everyone’s darling; the counterpoint to this crippled asshole”—delivers his soliloquies into a low-hanging mic as if hyping himself to the crowd. Beneath the surface, strapped into his deformities, his insecurities are rancorous and bitter. “It’s the story of someone privileged in life, but excluded from it, especially in his body – from social life, from love, from glamour. He climbs the ladder and is, in the end, confronted with his own vanity, his self-love and his loneliness.”

That seems almost conventional – British even. So much so that the show plays in a specially-made replica Globe at home in Berlin. Has Ostermeier gone British just as British theatre’s gone German?

Well, not quite. He turned down the RSC when invited to apply as artistic director a few years back (“Guess why?”) and he’s still as scathing as ever about textual reverence. “Shakespeare didn’t respect the big masters: the writers or literary sources that came before him. Hamlet was 600 years old when Shakespeare adapted it and his version was one amongst many, so you can’t respect his text 100 per cent. We don’t even know if he wrote the words down himself, so why do we continue in this tradition? He can’t be an icon. Shakespeare was sampling. He was a mash-up artist.”

Shakespeare didn’t respect the big masters: the writers or literary sources that came before him. Hamlet was 600 years old when Shakespeare adapted it and his version was one amongst many, so you can’t respect his text 100 per cent. We don’t even know if he wrote the words down himself, so why do we continue in this tradition?