Guest blog post: Director Jeff James in Munich

Munich

Directors Kate Hewitt, Tarek Iskander, Jeff James, Rikki Henry and Joe Hill-Gibbins in front of the Residenz Theater’s Marstall Studio.

At the beginning of July, I was part of a group of Young Vic directors who travelled to Munich as guests of the Goethe Institut and the Residenz Theater. Although it is Germany’s third largest city, Munich has two world-class theatres: the Residenz Theater and the Munich Kammerspiele. We saw work at both theatres, including a festival of work by young directors at the Marstall, the Residenz’s studio theatre. It was a week of extraordinarily high quality theatre: again and again the level of the acting was breathtaking. The formal inventiveness of the work was provocative and inspirational.

What was striking about several productions was that they had found a really interesting formal device, but then used in a way that was sufficiently sophisticated to reinvent its meaning several times. A show in the Marstallplan festival was an adaptation of Kathrin Röggla’s novel We Don’t Sleep, about the financial sector, directed by Gregor Turecek. From the beginning of the show, a tennis ball machine is firing balls at the wall. Soon there are five or six machines firing in different directions. The machines do not stand for one thing, instead shifting in meaning: they show the mechanisms the traders think they can control, but which evade control; the speed and pace of the work; the male violence shown towards female colleagues. The design closely shaped how the actors could move, and created a situation rather than illustrating a location.

Another stand out show was Calixto Bieito’s Cherry Orchard, designed by Rebecca Ringst at the Residenz. At the start, Yepikhodov clumsily knocks down a cloth printed with the façade of a house: behind there is a plasterboard shell of a house, with three walls and beams over the top. Over the course of the show this shell is destroyed. The panels of the floor are jumped through, the beams slam down into the wall. When Lopahkin has got the estate it is destroyed and worthless – his victory is hollow. There was an extraordinary moment at the end of Act 3 when Lopakhin tries to rape Ranevskaya, which seemed wholly true to their relationship at that point.

What is really impressive is the way that European directors can so often have their cake and eat it, in that they set up extraordinarily bold formal devices and at the same time establish relationships and situations that are resoundingly truthful. This was most vividly shown in a production of Hedda Gabler by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, touring to the Kammerspiele and directed by Ivo van Hove. There was a scene where Hedda licked Brack’s shoe, while also continuing a very nuanced and subtly-played conversation with him.

Although European theatre has less of a new-writing culture, there is lots of adaptation of non-dramatic texts.  We saw an adaptation of Max Frisch’s Questions, which just consists of questions about life (eg: “Are you sure you are really interested in the preservation of the human race once you and all the people you know are no longer alive? State briefly why.”). This production was directed by Alexander Riemenschneider. The play began with a figure at the piano, and then four superhero characters burst in, smashing though plasterboard panels or climbing down a wire ladder. They did forward rolls and jumps, but their bodies were not in fact super human. They asked the questions to each other and to the audience, but the gag was that they had no answer. These were people who were putting themselves in a position of authority by asking the questions, but they couldn’t deal with life. They would try to make coffee, smoke a cigarette or kiss and would fail in awkward clumsiness. The joke is that these people find life easier than everyone else, as they are superheroes, but that even for them life is impossible. The play between the tragic and the comic was very sophisticated here.

These were the highlights in a week of exceptional theatre. It is extraordinary how powerful theatre can be, even when one doesn’t understand the language the actors are speaking. Bereft of a text, the centrality of form becomes more obvious. These plays offered an incitement to push form much further.

– Jeff James, July 2012

Jeff James’ credits as director include: One for the Road and Victoria Station (Young Vic and Print Room), Swan Song (Print Room) and 24 Hour Plays (The Old Vic). Credits as assistant director include: Uncle Vanya (Chichester Minerva), The Changeling (Young Vic), Measure for Measure Workshop (RSC), Fabrication (Print Room), Macbeth (Shakespeare’s Globe), Public Property (Trafalgar Studio 2), Dial M for Murder (WYP and UK tour). 

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