Published on 7 March, 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line
‘Ibsen specialist’ Thomas Ostermeier on the joys of striking a chord universally
Thomas Ostermeier took over as the artistic director of the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin’s most famous theatre company, in 2000. He started off producing new plays with a young cast and startling conservative audiences with crude social realism. Over time he moved to classics, and his brutal honesty with the scripts of greats like William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and Bertolt Brecht made his productions worldwide hits.
Born in the provincial town of Soltau, in south Germany, Ostermeier’s humble upbringing — in a conservative Catholic family of three brothers, with their father in the army and mother, a shopkeeper — completely belie his provocative productions. In Athens, he staged Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a mud-fight in which the tragic hero is transformed into a modern figure struggling in a mesh of idealism and insanity.
His production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People premiered at the prestigious Festival d’Avignon in France in July 2012, and has since had 150 performances in more than 15 countries, including India, at the National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2015.
After the show, Ostermeier talked about how theatre for him is largely connected to the current state of politics and the hypocrisies of the world we live in.
How did you get into directing plays?
Directing happened by chance, by accident. I moved to Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, I was trained as an actor and working as a musician. All of a sudden, a friend who was in school with me said she was studying directing. I didn’t even know that one can study directing. So, after I completed my education as an actor, and later when my big dream of becoming a famous musician didn’t come true, I studied directing at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, Berlin.
After two years, I produced my first show, German playwright Brecht’s Drums in the Night, one of his very early plays, and it was a huge success.
How did the association with NSD’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav come about?
Thanks to Robin Mallick, from the Goethe Institut, who has been trying to bring us to India for the last five years; he wanted me to bring my earlier productions of Ibsen’s plays for the Ibsen festival held here every year, but we could never make it. This time we changed all our programmes and premiered my new show — William Shakespeare’s Richard III — a little earlier than we were supposed to.
You have already directed six of Ibsen’s earlier plays. What drove you to choose An Enemy of the People?
I’d like to call myself a kind of specialist on Ibsen’s writing. This particular play appealed to me because of the political situation in the world at the moment… Can we influence the power of the global economy by policy or politics? Are we completely dominated by multinational companies?
These questions appear in the context of this play, especially after the very important events in the real world like the Occupy movement, Indignants movement (the ongoing anti-austerity campaign in Spain), the Gezi Park protests at Taksim Square in Istanbul (against plans to reconstruct Gezi Park, in 2013-14), or the recent upheaval in Brazil… all these question our ability, as the younger generation, of creating our own world and not following the path that our fathers did.
The play is not simply about courage and rebelliousness — the urgency of its social context is very close to the occurrences of our era.
What is the role of music in your production?
The cover songs in the play are by one of the musicians I’m constantly working with called Malte Beckenbach. We wanted the kind of music that dealt with the belief in political change and rebellious power of music. There was a time in the ’60s when music was part of a revolutionary/rebellious movement. Now, of course, pop culture is completely empty of it and there’s only attitude, but no consequence. We were trying to make an ironical statement with our music by playing David Bowie’s Changes, and then going on to show that nothing is changing. We’ve used another famous song by Clash, which is the song of the working class in Great Britain.
What’s important to me is that Dr Stockmann and his friends represent the people of Berlin playing in a band, and they’re part of the art scene, yet they’re as banal as usual doctors. This is a representation of a group of people in Berlin, where everybody considers himself an artist, irrespective of his profession.
Act IV is suggestive of the theatre of the oppressed, where the performer (Dr Stockmann) interacts with the audience to encourage response. What did you make of the response in Delhi?
I loved that the audience immediately made a comparison with what’s happening in the play and the situation in India. We get, more or less, the same response worldwide as well, which means that everywhere, for the audience, politics is connected with corruption and hypocrisy, empty promises, not believing in democracy anymore, not believing that our kind of democracy is really democratic. And this is something one faces in every country.
When we performed in New York, there too the audience… were very disillusioned and saying that The New York Times is no longer publishing the truth, that the publication is now ruled by the insurance of global companies that put advertising in their newspaper. That reaction was very shocking.