The Schaubühne Berlin Under Thomas Ostermeier: Reinventing Realism

Ed. by Peter M. Boenish
232 pp. London: Methuen

Reviewed by Ivan Medenica*

The title and the subtitle of this book define its topic in a comprehensive and precise manner. In a series of wide-ranging essays by various scholars, critics and artists, the book treats the artistic and organisational concept and development of Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz theatre from the year 2000 until today, a period under the artistic directorship of theatre director Thomas Ostermeier. It also offers comparative analyses of the work of other Schaubühne directors as well essays on the development of Ostermeier’s own poetics, which the editor terms “reinventing realism”.

The book is divided into three sections: the history of the theatre and its institutional context and mission (chapter “Reinventing Institution”); the thematic, ideological and formal characteristics of Ostermeier’s own productions (chapter “Reinventing ‘Directors’ Theatre”); the “new realism” and other forms in the work of the directors and choreographers of Schaubühne, as well as a dialogue with different performing cultures established through touring and this theatre’s own international festival called FIND (chapter “The Schaubühne’s Experiments Across Forms and Borders: Towards a New Realism“).

Peter M. Boenish, an expert on Ostermeier’s work, has developed this book as a multi-perspective analysis of the accomplishments achieved in the past 20 years, both in the performances by the German director and in his artistic leadership in the theatre. However, the volume also includes a few remarks on the challenges, controversies and failures that have been following Schaubühne in this period. It also shows that Ostermeier’s acknowledges some of these controversies (the failure of his initial concept of a democratic organisation of the theatre, including equal salaries for all the artists) and even succeeds to overcome some of them, including how women were represented in his performances, as well as in the very structure of Schaubühne.

No doubt, the overall evaluation would have been considerably different had, say, critics from the leading German theatre journal Theater Heute also been asked to write for this volume. Why was there such resistance by Berlin critics towards Ostermeier both as director and manager? The reasons are, of course, complex and not always consistent. And they are not very clear to anyone who does not live or work between Charlottenburg and Prenzlauer Berg.[1]

The first part of the book is focused on the context of the foundation of Schaubühne, its history and current organization, as well as its social and cultural position. This part begins with a manifesto from 1999 (“Mission”) written by the four new and young managers of this theatre — Ostermeier, the choreographer Sascha Walz, and dramaturges Jens Hillje and Jochen Sandig.

Founded in West Berlin at the beginning of the 1960s, the theatre’s unique organizational and artistic identity was created early on by its legendary manager and director Peter Stein. Theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte’s essay analyses the differences between this earlier period and the one in which Ostermeier and his associates emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. Fischer-Lichte recognises and even emphasises the continuity included in the democratic decision-making process and the system of directors-in-residence: Klaus Michael Grüber, Claus Peymann and Luc Bondy early on as well as Katie Mitchell, Luk Perceval and Falk Richter[2] more recently. In both periods, Schaubühne became a kind of a “trademark” of German theatre because of its international touring. Fischer-Lichte underlines the intention of both Stein and Ostermeier to make a political theatre. She labels Stein’s political work as philosophical and Ostermeier’s as sociological. Stein, she says, problematized the historical failure of the bourgeoisie (the consequences of which we are still living with), while Ostermeier adapted classics — most often works by Ibsen – and staged contemporary British, Scandinavian, and German plays to criticise contemporary capitalist society.

Ramona Mosse explores the same topic, the identity of the institution, but focuses specifically on Ostermeier. She raises the local issue of the relationship between the locale where Schaubühne is situated and its social surrounding (that is, its bourgeois audience). She examines Ostermeier’s concept of theatre as an institution for constructing an open society and the fact that it is itself a private theatre receiving public subventions. Mosse also raises larger issues including the Schaubühne’s various forms of otherness: its international exchanges (touring, the festival FIND, visiting directors and authors); its blog (Pearson’s Preview) which includes interviews and notes about their productions, a website run by a Canadian, Joseph Pearson (neither a German nor a theatre man); its self-critical concern with gender issues.

As an echo of former analyses, the first part of the book ends with an interview with Ostermeier himself done by Clare Finburgh Delijani. After a competent mapping of the heritage Stein left at Schaubühne, with the problematization of certain lmyths[3], Ostermeier explains how and why he took on the model of democratic management of theatre and equal salaries, and admits his failure in that area, stating that his priority in management was internationalization (which was, until then, rather rare in German theatre). He also explains his concept of political theatre and how his own political attitude is reflected in the plays and topics he chooses rather than in any concrete ideological agenda. Developing his thesis on relevance of a strong acting ensemble, Ostermeier states that this concept does not come in the way of cultural diversity of the employees and rejects yet another common objection to his work: socially engaged theatre does not necessarily belong to “high culture”, it can also be popular and entertaining.

The part of the book which deals with Ostermeier’s specific work as a director and his own approach to realism starts with a text by American scholar Marvin Carlson, an expert in Berlin theatre life, who distinguishes Ostermeier’s realism from the kind of socialist realism, ubiquitous in the former eastern bloc (the difference is self-implied), but also from the ironically labelled capitalist realism rooted in consumerism and advertising. Echoing Fisher-Lichte’s thesis about Ostermeier’s “sociological” political theatre – one which criticizes contemporary capitalist society — Carlson gives an historical overview of the development of Ostermeier’s specific critique of capitalism: from his first staging of British in-yer-face plays in the ‘90s, through the staging of numerous plays by Ibsen, to a condemnation of neo-fascism in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Besides the significant distance of Ostermeier’s work from both socialist and capitalist realism, Carlson mentions yet another line, the one that separates his work from Frank Castorf’s “deconstructive” approach in directing.

The most interesting and perhaps controversial aspect of the second part of the book is Jitka Goriaux Pelechová’s thesis that “this quest for a realism of the stage underlines all Ostermiere’s Shakespeare productions” (79). She analyses certain aspects of Ostermeier’s realism in the staging of Shakespeare’s plays: from dramaturgical re-contextualisation through set designs by Jan Papperbaum, through the form of his stage images which clarify each play’s central situations (Goriaux Pelechová calls them “director’s fabrications”), to an acting style that links expressive, physical performing to Stanislavski’s tradition of acting from one’s own experience. That said, the author does not link these separate characteristics in a coherent, theoretically elaborated concept of stage realism, which does leave her core thesis somewhat unfounded.

Other arguments in favour of Ostermeier’s realism and political relevance in staging Shakespeare are offered from a socio-cultural direction by Elisa Leroy through her analysis of diachronic and synchronic changes that the performance Hamlet went through between 2008 and 2020. The diachronic ones are those caused by the time and the places where the performance was held — in particular in Tehran and Ramala. The synchronic ones are those created by actor Lars Eidinger with his constant, and often topical improvisations. Boenish in his own text thoroughly analyses Ostermeier’s realism, finding its uniqueness in the interweaving of dramatic fiction and the (post-dramatic) disclosure of the theatre frame, which he labels “post-conceptual director’s theatre.”

The third part of the book introduces various comparative perspectives, providing an even broader context. Containing three texts which refer neither to Ostermeier’s work nor to the main lines in Schaubühne program, these essays focus on individual performing forms or cultures. One is a detailed and erudite analysis of the performance Trust by Falk Richter and the choreographer Anouk van Dijk, written by theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann; the second one (by Marina Ceppi) is a review of Mexican and Chilean political theatre performed at FIND festival, characterized by “rage” and various forms of direct focus on audiences, with an idea to not leave viewers in the position of being mere observers; the third, written by Sabine Huschka, is an analysis of works of contemporary dance done at Schaubühne.

Although the first is a testimony about the aims, strategies and procedures in the work of the new Schaubühne in its first 10 years, and the second one a theoretical analysis of the realistic approach of the theatre’s two directors, two texts by Jens Hillje and Benjamin Fowler are linked by the fact that both partially (Hillje) or fully (Fowler) compare Ostermeier’s performances with the ones staged by other directors-in-residence. Hillje compares the work on classics by Ostermeier, Perceval, and Richter, especially in terms of acting, emphasising the contribution of this diversity to the development of the ensemble. On the one side, there is the performative nature of Perceval’s method (which could be called non-acting), while on the other we have Ostermeier’s focus on acting within the given dramatic frame. He further argues that Richter creates a tension between speech as a form of thinking and the actions of the actors themselves. Hillje also offers detailed insight into the criteria behind the selection of new plays, of working on them (from commissioning to text development during rehearsal process), explaining such an approach by referring to the links that Schaubühne had with London’s Royal Court, and explaining the genesis, concept and significance of their festival FIND.

I have left Benjamin Fowler’s text for the end of this review because it effectively brings together the main subjects of this important publication — the management of Schaubühne under Ostermeier (reasons for visiting directors’ engagements, as well as the contribution of their work to the artistic identity of the theatre); Ostermeier’s specific kind of realism which is here called not only sociological but also critical linking it to the more political Brechtian intentions of Ostermeier. Fowler also discusses the limits of this stage approach, and explains how Ostermeier overcame them through a comparative analysis of two stagings of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Wunschkonzert: one by director Katie Mitchell, the other by Ostermeier himself. Fowler concludes that Ostermeier’s realism is characterized by a physicality in the acting (akin to the spirit of Meyerhold’s biomechanics) which best expresses the hedonism, anxiety and alienation of capitalist society. In combination with the carefully designed materiality of the scene (costume and decor), this acting style develops a clear social criticism.

In sum, a most useful book for anyone interested in recent German theatre in general, the Schaubühne as both an aesthetic and a theatre, and/or Thomas Ostermeier’s very particular notions of stage realism.


[1] I tried to explain this controversy in my earlier text “Berlin – une révélation théâtrale” in: Les Voyages ou l’ailleurs du théâtre: hommage à Georges Banu, (published in Alternatives  théâtrales, Bruxelles, 2013 (240-48).

[2] I believe that Fischer-Lichte makes an omission when in listing visiting directors during Ostermeier’s mandate, she omits Falk Richter, one of the directors who has left one of the most significant marks in Schaubühne in the past 20 years.The work of the triumvirate of the “directors-in-residence” in the first 10 years of the new Schaubühne — Ostermeier, Perceval and Richter —  is thoroughly analysed in the text by Jens Hillje.

[3] “We now tend to look back at this time as a golden age of the Schaubühne, but reading the reviews, it is clear that early on, they were criticized,” Ostermeier in conversation with Clare Finburgh Delijani, “Audiences Know Their Cause will be Treated’: Making Political Theatre at the Schaubühne” (43). 

*Ivan Medenica is Artistic Director of the BITEF festival as well as a Professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade where he teaches history of world theatre and drama and introduction to theatre and performance studies. Active for many years as both a theatre critic and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he has long been a keen observer of modern German drama and theatre.

Copyright © 2022 Ivan Medenica
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