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Disillusioned but not disoriented

Peter Michalzik interviews Thomas Ostermeier on "Hedda Gabler"

Since 1999, Thomas Ostermeier has been one of the artistic directors of the Schaubühne, the last major theatre in West Berlin. Ostermeier and his team began with a serious political and collaborative approach, focusing on social realism and resfusing to work in film and television. Their first major success was Ibsen's "Nora", which became a mega-export of the German theatre scene. "Hedda Gabler", which premieres tomorrow, is Ostermeier's second Ibsen.

Frankfurter Rundschau: Doesn't it bother you that you have to work in this part of the city, Berlin-Charlottenburg (bourgeois)?

Thomas Ostermeier: I actually find it quite interesting. The sidestreets and the Kurfürstendamm here inspire me more than in Mitte or Prenzlauerberg (former East Berlin, considered hip). This world, this crumbling West German milieu suits our work.

An Ibsen world?

Thomas Ostermeier (ddp)Thomas Ostermeier (ddp)
We're doing Ibsen for the second time. It says something about today, more so than Chekhov. We understand a character like the young academic who has not exactly earned a professorial posting but is determined to get one in order to prove himself. Or Hedda. Established but nonetheless asking: Damn, how did I end up here? The secure pension, the nice house, giving the husband some children. This has a lot to do with us, with my life. What do you do when you find yourself on solid ground but metaphysically empty? Or what does it mean when happiness means nothing more than security? Somehow, we're stuck in mediocrity. So we end up in a country that is barren, that has no private or political vision. Like in Ibsen.

And like in the Schaubühne?

Well, the way that we set out here, how we delved into our own biographies, how we once really believed that we might - if not change the world - at least be involved in some major agitations, how we did manage to put an era of great change behind us; all this has enabled us to look at life with a little more Asian equanimity. Maybe we can't change everything, maybe the problems lie in the people themselves and not just in the circumstances.

Five or ten years ago we still thought that people could be helped, today we ask ourselves if it's worth wasting our energy. Is that the new Schaubühne?

No. Back then there were projects like "Personenkreis 3.1", that were never really understood. We wanted to show the lives of characters that were not gauged to be losers but in fact became just that. It was an attempt to show the entire breadth of society. Now it seems that we are confronted with the inexplicable, demonic and animalistic side of Hedda.

Isn't it different? At the beginning, there was social empathy with the disadvantaged of the world. Realism was all about giving voice to those beneath us.


And now the interest has shifted to the somewhat effete bourgeois. Yes, they're people too but...

…who have also become impoverished. Inside. That's close to Hedda, to her fear of economic failure, to her weapons that get ever sharper in the fight to survive. We're so agitated, stressed and afraid. Now that the middle class is threatened, we're trying new things, new strategies of survival and exclusion. Un-solidarity, that's the slogan; total concentration on the career.

How do you view this world: with frustration, disillusion, nausea, equanimity, boredom?

Definitely not boredom. With a certain relaxedness that allows me to look closer. I try not to be so bitter in my work, not to force results.

The asshole director: a time-honoured, well established persona.

That's true. But I also think that certain aspects of directors' personalities are particularly well developed. It doesn't hurt to work on the less developed ones. I can deliver the asshole director well, democratically, I don't really have to work on that. Although I'm not so sure that it's true about the asshole. Mathaler certainly isn't one, nor is Simon McBurney and even Zadek is more like an intelligent friend who looks kind of cold but who you're glad to have around.

Back to the disillusionment.

I definitely don't want to imply that disillusionment is the same as disorientation. There was in the past, much discussion about the role of theatre, the art of conflict in a non-conflictual society of consensus. If the conflicts now return and the wind blows colder, then theatre stands a good chance. Finally we resurrect drama again in our supposedly post-dramatic times.

Has the play changed, from "Nora" to "Hedda"?

There's been an attempt to do without excessive effects and theatrical moments, to work with an extremely minimal language, to concentrate on what really counts and get closer to the characters.

Is it possible that social power lies in this closeness?

Yes. That's a really important point. I am not a director who goes for formal access, I can't make myself be that way, where my obsessions take me in another direction. I can't re-form myself.


Here the dates of future performances.

This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on October 25, 2005.

Interview: Peter Michalzik

translation: nb

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