Interview: Marius von Mayenburg ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 25, 2008

Interview: Marius von Mayenburg

If you were looking for a model of a writer in the theatre, you could do worse than point to Marius von Mayenburg: playwright, translator and, for the past eight years, full-time dramaturge at the Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz, one of Berlin’s major theatres. As he says, for a playwright he has the ideal job: it may at times be stressful, it may deprive him of sleep or even sometimes interfere with his own writing: but on the other hand, he is right where the action is.

“All my work is somehow related to dramaturgy,” says Mayenburg. “I react to the traditions we are working with in the theatre, I react to the actors. And in my work, I am reading all the time. I’m always looking for what’s ‘missing’, for what isn’t being addressed in the plays around me, and then I try to write those plays myself.”

Born in 1972, Mayenburg is one of the rising stars of European theatre. His plays are garnering a growing international audience, winning productions throughout Europe and, increasingly, further afield. Last year his play The Ugly One, a sardonic drama about the contemporary obsession with physical appearance, created a small sensation at the Royal Court (ensuring itself a return season later this year).

His widely produced play The Cold Child deconstructs the bourgeois illusion of “family values” so beloved of politicians, unearthing a nightmare overlap between hatred and love, narcissistic self-obsession and self-contempt. His 2004 play Eldorado, which was given a stunning production at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2006, mapped these familial passions onto a larger palette that overtly drew on terrorism and the Iraq war to show how capitalism destroys both intimate human relationships and the planet.

And now he is in Australia for the rehearsals of Moving Target, his newest play, which has been commissioned by the Malthouse Theatre. It premieres later this week at the Adelaide Bank Festival before a Melbourne season from March 12 at the Malthouse. Moving Target has emerged from an intense process of collaboration, not unlike those Caryl Churchill used with Joint Stock or Monstrous Regiment in the 1970s to create plays like Vinegar Tom or Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

It began with a two week workshop in 2006. Mayenburg had a director - Benedict Andrews, with whom he has worked with for five years in both Germany and Australia - a designer, five actors and an idea – the childish game of hide and seek. He returned to Melbourne the following year with a play that drew on the ideas improvised and explored in the workshop, and worked further with the same creative team, and then came back again two weeks ago for rehearsals.

For Mayenburg, who says he has never worked this way before, it was a “liberating” experience. “I didn’t have to invent everything for myself, I didn’t have to worry about the dramatic structure,” he says. “It was good to start from zero to somehow collectively create this work. I enjoy working on my own, and I am very cruel to myself, I throw work out if it’s not working, but here I could give some responsibility to other people.”

Moving Target examines society’s fear of its own children to create a dark work about repression and paranoia that resonates far beyond the domestic sphere. It is a play that doesn’t have characters, as such: rather the actors collectively explore the parental fears prompted by the behaviour of a prepubescent girl. As in Mayenburg's earlier work, the familiar domestic world is peeled back to reveal uncanny and sinister shadows. He directly links the domestic darknesses to larger communal fears. As his work makes clear, he is one of contemporary theatre’s most sensitive observers of terror, tracing its fault lines from the minutiae of domestic relationships to the nuances of global paranoia.

“I am always trying to write about things that irritate me,” he says. “I try to write about things I know about. Fear is so individual, and yet it’s something that we all share: so many terrible things have happened in the world. I didn’t intend, when I started the play, to write about terrorism, but that’s one of the things it’s ended up being about.”

Because of its elliptical lyricism and strangely surreal realism, English speakers most often compare his writing to the plays of Caryl Churchill (Mayenburg himself traces his lineage from Georg B├╝chner - the only playwright, he says, that he can't work out). Churchill is not a comparison he quibbles with: his dramaturgical work has led to a deep familiarity with contemporary English playwrights. Among others, Mayenburg has translated the work of Sarah Kane (although he hardly confines himself to contemporary writers: he is currently translating Hamlet) and he says the present generation of playwrights is unimaginable without the example of Churchill’s work. “They are all,” he says, “Churchill’s children.”

But he quibbles with the word “poet”, although he has been described as a poet by his own theatre’s director. “I wouldn’t say I was a poet,” he says. “Poets live in their own bubble of genius, waiting for inspiration, for the muse…” (Reader, I confess I laughed out loud at this point, but perhaps I am not a German poet). “Yes, yes, this idea about poets is still quite prevalent in Germany. But if you think like this, you can’t learn, you can’t improve. If you look at the first drafts of a famous writer like Schiller, for instance, you will see it is first written in prose…”

And besides, Mayenburg maintains – I think correctly – that writing for theatre is among the most strict of literary arts. “There are rules in writing for the theatre,” he says. “You have to be aware of physical distance, what people will understand in the first row and in the back row. You have to understand that people will only hear it once – unlike a poem, where you can go back and reread something you don’t understand. You have to be aware of acoustics, how much more important that is in the theatre than it is in film. And theatre is linear, things happen one thing after the other. You can bend these things, but there’s no way of avoiding them.”

Where theatre is poetic, he says, is in how it condenses thought. And in how its images must be immediately physical, in order to communicate complex ideas and feelings. These are certainly qualities of the text of Moving Target: on the one hand, it has the tensile strength, economy and beauty of poetry, and on the other, it is clearly drawn from and written for performance. I can’t wait to see how it plays on a stage.

Another version of this interview appears in the Guardian's theatre blog today.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be able to wait either, Alison, but it seems von Mayenburg is unlikely to find an American stage anytime soon. Though active since 1996, he apparently has yet to be produced in the U.S. I'll look forward to hearing more about it.

Alison Croggon said...

That's a shame, George, though maybe the US will catch up. I'm sure you'd find his work really interesting. I'm not sure what's published in English - only Fireface, I think.

Anonymous said...

Methuen's Royal Court series has Fireface and The Ugly One -- expensive given the current exchange rate, alas, at Perhaps soon.

Gregory Scott Campbell said...

After having read "The Ugly One" last year, we are very interested in bringing his voice to the American stage. As far as I know, "The Ugly One" had a very short run at the Guthrie. Presently it is in the mix for next season with us.