Something more needs to be written about Thomas Ostermeier’s work, if purely because he has been a formative influence on contemporary Australian theatre. Ostermeier is the major influence on Australia’s two most prominent directors of classics: Benedict Andrews (through his work at Berlin’s Schaubühne), whose Australian productions have replicated the Schaubühne aesthetic (possibly to the point of plagiarism, but then, the question of plagiarism in theatre is a fraught one); and Simon Stone (through the influence of Andrews, but not just). However, I don’t quite have the capacity to do that in this text, which will limit itself to a short list of notes on Ostermeier’s new work, a version of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind / The Enemy of the People.
1. THE PLAY
I have seen two productions of Ein Volksfeind in Germany this year (the other was by Theater Bonn at Theatertreffen), and neither quite hit the bull’s eye. On the surface, it is a play written for 2012: a study of greedy capital compromising the common good, and the entire society with it. Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that the spa baths, the motor of development and prosperity of his small town, are contaminated by the waste from the local tannery, and poisoning, rather than curing its visitors. As he tries to mobilise the public, however, he discovers that everybody has an interest to protect. His brother, the town mayor, is more concerned about the effect on the local economy. Hovstad and Billing, his friends journalists, are eager to break the story until the financing of their paper is threatened. The townspeople don’t want to lose business to the neighbouring towns, which are building their own spas. His own family is uncertain.
However, Ibsen’s analysis of the social ills is so of his time and so particular to him, that the play starts to hiccup just when it seems it might deliver some great insight into the global banking crisis. Ibsen, the great liberal of the 19th century, has Stockmann proclaim that the individual is always superior to the multitude, that this society corrupts, that the truth cannot be the truth of the masses, too easily swayed by demagogues. “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.” And -
“…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”
But Ibsen is also, constantly, a playwright interested in people shaped by their social vices. Stockmann is a vain man, a stubborn man. His brother an astute politician. His friends journalists, Hovstad and Billing, media opportunists. Only Stockmann’s daughter keeps a clean record of idealism, but this is her low social stakes talking. Like all other Ibsen’s plays, so is this one not really about politics, but about people. It has characters looking for an ethical peace of mind, not for social change.
2. BERLIN-MITTE BASHING
Ostermeier’s production is a showcase of everything that has made Schaubühne one of the best-known state theatres of our time. The lovely, airy modernisation of the text, full of softly contemporary slang, which makes it seem contemporary and classic at the same time, airy and light, but pregnant with cultural capital. The fine naturalist acting, exquisite, filigree in detail. The stylishness of the Berlin-Mitte hipsters, now sharing pasta at an enormous dinner table, now rehearsing with their band, the best kind of hipster imaginable. The off-handed big-budget excellence of it all. This is mega-sexy theatre.
All of the Ostermeier’s Ibsens I have seen (Nora, Hedda Gabbler, this) have done the same substitution of the money-worried 19th-century Norwegian bourgeois class, torn between their slow advancement up bureaucratic ranks and their need to keep up with the status symbols of their class (to satisfy both their sense of entitlement and their neighbours), with the Berlin Bobo, similarly needing their MacBooks and couches and sense of moral integrity for their lifestyle to work. One critic has noted that, for Ostermeier, social analysis means ‘Berlin-Mitte Bashing’, and this is funny and true. This is why the first act includes an a-propos-of-nothing band rehearsal, and a rendition of David Bowie’s Changes, performed in its entirety. Ostermeier, like Ibsen, is interested in the petite bourgeoisie.
3. A SMALL ASIDE ON THE USE OF MUSIC IN THOMAS OSTERMEIER’S THEATRE
It is always a little out of place, the lyrics often mismatch the event, there is something cinematic to it, or rather advertising-like, like someone showcasing their good musical taste and applying it to a fridge. But Ostermeier is talking about the European middle class, people who do not have an organic social link to a band coming from the American West Coast or the British industrial North, people for whom these songs come out of a colourful soup of content broadcast from above, for whom these are decontextualised, fetishised, dead goods of social positioning – the same way in which Australian or American homes may feature tribal art from faraway regions. These people do not even understand the English lyrics. David Bowie in the opening act positions Ostermeier’s Stockmanns, but in terms of self-identification with a tribe. The mythology of their lives includes a certain kind of rebellion, a certain kind of cool, stylish, slightly edgy, tasteful outsidership. But their lived reality is in stable jobs and knock-off designer furniture. Such is the Berlin Bobo.
The most wonderfully realised characters in this production are, indeed, the ur-Bobos: Hovstag and Billing; with their horn-rimmed glasses, stylish headphones, lazy but cultivated argot, their excitement for a social fight, only if not too destabilising to their well-put-together lives. Ostermeier does so much with them, as if to prolong their time on stage to the maximum, because these, I think, are the characters that interest him the most. The Stockmann mayor, in comparison, is a bare sketch. And Stockmann the ethical doctor… well.
4. STOCKMANN THE ETHICAL DOCTOR
Ostermeier is not a political director. This is fine; neither is Ibsen a political playwright. But this production purports to be a politically charged production. It tries to stretch The Volksfeind and make it apply to the Occupy, to the 99%, to the state of the world, to this very second. To this point, Act IV, in which Dr Stockmann makes a speech before the townspeople, makes him dive into an important contemporary text, The Coming Insurrection.
The text above, which makes up the bulk of the speech Ostermeier’s Stockmann gives, was published anonymously in 2007 in France, by an anarchist group, and has become very influential around the world. It tries to theorise the current economic crisis as a high point of a general crisis of modern capitalist civilization, particularly as alienation of the individual from themselves, from the society, from the environment, etc. The proposed way forward is a formation of small cells of like-minded individuals, communes, which will form an underground network and attack the system in the opportune moment. (It is a good text, in the fine tradition of French activist theory. I am not doing it justice here.)
Here is a section of The Coming Insurrection, a large part of which Ostermeier puts into Stockmann’s mouth:
“I AM WHAT I AM.” My body belongs to me. I am me, you are you, and something’s wrong. Mass personalization. Individualization of all conditions – life, work and misery. Diffuse schizophrenia. Rampant depression. Atomization into fine paranoiac particles. Hysterization of contact. The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I am drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get. We cling to our self like a coveted job title. We’ve become our own representatives in a strange commerce, guarantors of a personalization that feels, in the end, a lot more like an amputation. We insure our selves to the point of bankruptcy, with a more or less disguised clumsiness.
Meanwhile, I manage. The quest for a self, my blog, my apartment, the latest fashionable crap, relationship dramas, who’s fucking who… whatever prosthesis it takes to hold onto an “I”! If “society” hadn’t become such a definitive abstraction, then it would denote all the existential crutches that allow me to keep dragging on, the ensemble of dependencies I’ve contracted as the price of my identity. …
“WHAT AM I,” then? … Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges – at certain times and places – that being which says “I.” Our feeling of inconsistency is simply the consequence of this foolish belief in the permanence of the self and of the little care we give to what makes us what we are.
It’s dizzying to see Reebok’s “I AM WHAT I AM” enthroned atop a Shanghai skyscraper. The West everywhere rolls out its favorite Trojan horse: the exasperating antimony between the self and the world, the individual and the group, between attachment and freedom. Freedom isn’t the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them. The family only exists as a family, that is, as a hell, for those who’ve quit trying to alter its debilitating mechanisms, or don’t know how to. The freedom to uproot oneself has always been a phantasmic freedom. We can’t rid ourselves of what binds us without at the same time losing the very thing to which our forces would be applied.
And then Ibsen’s Stockmann says: “…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”
I will repeat this again: Henrik Ibsen was a consummate believer in the oppression of the individual by the society. He was writing about the paternalistic, patriarchal, socially rigid 19th century, and he supported the lengthening of those chains, the enlargement of those cages. Every social movement since basically did the same, which is why today we are sitting on a pile of old ideologies, all telling us to take care of our true selves. This is what The Coming Insurrection points out, the vacuity of the ‘self’, the oppression of the term. These two ideas are as mutually exclusive as two ideas get.
I don’t need all my theatre to handle extravagantly complicated theory. I don’t need it to be incredibly intelligent. But I do need it to make sense. I need it to handle accurately whatever ideas it chooses to handle, and not simply set them off one after another in order to make a big awesome fireworks, just because it looks and sounds nice. The same way in which historical fiction may take its liberties, but needs to remain within the general area of truth, theatre that purports to explore some ideas of justice, power, individual and community needs not to promote two opposing notions of the ‘individual’ and the ‘community’ at the same time, by the same person.
5. POLITICAL THEATRE
Both of this year’s productions of this play tried to open up Act IV and make it into a floor discussion, making me think it might be some kind of passing convention of the German theatre circa May 2012. (As an aside: Theater Bonn’s production of Ein Volksfiend was enormously problematic, cramming all kinds of tropes into the staging. One critic wrote, with some malice: “One could be forgiven for thinking that the jury wanted to demonstrate that the 1990s avantgarde has finally arrived to the provinces.”) This was the lowest point of both productions, alas.
Where to begin… It is a pertinent and useful question whether classical, ‘theatre theatre’, with its proscenium arch and its people pretending to be other people, can have a political effect. Ibsen’s theatre arguably did, causing scandals and outrage. But Ibsen’s theatre had a performative effect in its own right: Ibsen said unsayable things; Ibsen’s characters did things they could not do in the real life. Whether the same spatial configuration of people, presided over by a long-dead writer, can move people to act in 2012, is a great question. But if it does, it is not going to happen through 15 minutes of directed discussion, made to respond to a speech that made little sense to begin with, and ending with the decision of a 19th-century man that the individual must prevail over the community. That is not political theatre. That is not anything much.
That is embarrassing, in fact. In a country, in a city, where Christoph Schlingensief invented political performance for the third millenium, forming political parties, mobilising the unemployed into political-theatrical-publicity performances, creating spoof reality TV out of the asylum seeker circus and then sparking geniune riots, in this milieu, to open the floor to some kind of discussion about democracy and then present the results as some indicator of the political spirit of the times, that is simply terribly misguided. Not simply on the level of political action, but on the level of theatrical effect. It reminded me of The Pianist at Sydney Festival 2009, an otherwise beautiful play, but which ended with a small whirlpool of snowflakes falling on the stage; it would have been beautiful, had Benedict Andrews not had War of the Roses at the same festival, in which kilograms of gold fell for hours. After Schlingensief, one cannot do political theatre tokenistically.
But not only Schlingensief. During those interminable 15 minutes (on the night that I saw it, the audience got involved into a bit of a discussion, until it got too detailed and boring for the performers, and they went back to Ibsen; I hear the opening-night audience was dead silent), I thought of many a fantastic performance exploring community, agency, the relationship between the individual and the world, that I have seen in the past years: one-on-one performances, version 1.0, relational and audience works by Triage, Ontroerend Goed, Gob Squad’s Revolution Now!… To not take that into account, and yet try to involve politics in one’s theatre, is perhaps a misstep.
6. THE QUESTION OF CONTEXT
But, writing this, it occurred to me that there is something about Ostermeier’s particular kind of Berlin Bobo that applies terrifically to Australia, more so than even to Berlin-Mitte: this crossover between the relaxed, politically cynical contemporary hipster and the 19th-century status-conscious, terrifically wealthy, and conformist Norwegian bourgeois. If the indulgence of these catlike young people, playing their Bowie in their lounge room and getting all chicken-shit about the funding of their newspaper, has only a muted reference to the political moment in which most of the developed world is in, which I believe to be much more about the 99% than the 1%, or even the 10% or 12% – well, I think it might resonate with Australia. Unless Ostermeier’s ethnography is too veiled to be detectable. It remains to be seen. It is showing in Australia in about a week, I believe.
»Ein Volksfeind«, von Henrik Ibsen, in einer Bearbeitung von Florian Borchmeyer, Regie Thomas Ostermeier, Bühne Jan Pappelbaum, Kostüme Nina Wetzel, Musik Malte Beckenbach, Daniel Freitag, Dramaturgie Florian Borchmeyer, Licht Erich Schneider. Mit Stefan Stern, Ingo Hülsmann, Eva Meckbach, Christoph Gawenda, David Ruland, Moritz Gottwald, Thomas Bading.
Premiere in Avignon am 18. Juli 2012
Premiere in Berlin am 8. September 2012