Avantgarde food for a starving audience

by Andrew Haydon

26 March 2014. In May 2012 Sebastian Nübling's collaborative production of Simon Stephens's Three Kingdoms landed in London. The effect felt like a massive explosion within British theatre. The mainstream, and broadsheet critics, either hated it ("You'd have to be debauched beyond redemption in order to conclude that you were actually enjoying the spectacle while it happened" – Michael Coveney, WhatsOnStage.com) or politely dismissed it ("It's an unsettling piece that pulses with menace and demented humour yet slips at times into self-indulgence." – Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard). The Guardian's Michael Billington tried to bury it ("The plot is made harder to follow by Nübling's grossly self-advertising production, in which everything is overstated and overheated... his production is always trying to tell us how idiosyncratically clever it is.").

But then something remarkable happened; the online reviews of the show, and the growing buzz around it on Twitter, managed to completely override the mainstream critical consensus and by the end of the run the production was playing to sold out houses and standing ovations. The atmosphere in the Lyric Hammersmith on the last night was more like that of a rock concert than a theatre – so that The Guardian finally conceded: "'Three Kingdoms' changed a generation's idea of what British theatre could be."

Hungry for exciting, provocative and important theatre

In his speech launching the series "Secret Theatre" a year later, the Lyric Hammersmith's artistic director Sean Holmes made it clear how much "Three Kingdoms" had affected the thinking behind the new venture. The experience of "Three Kingdoms" "showed to us an audience hungry – perhaps starved of – work this exciting, provocative and important. And if the audience were starving, surely it was our job to feed them?"

It's a truism to say that modern mainstream "British theatre" (insofar as it's possible to generalize) has largely been a "writer's theatre". We grew up with a culture of directors trying to be as "invisible" as possible – trying to "follow the playwright's 'intentions'". Simon Stephens gives a perfect example of how the British understand Regietheater in his address to the Stückemarkt at Theatertreffen 2011: "Before I went [to see Nübling's production "Herons" in Basel in 2005] I'd been warned by my agent, by at least two other writers and by one literary manager that I would hate it. 'They'll wrap all the actors in cling film and swing them from the ceiling on meat hooks, take out all your text and add in new text by Michel Houellebecq', they suggested to me. They were wrong..."

Collision of two theatrical cultures

As it happens, Nübling *did* direct Stephens's "Herons" in a way that paid no heed to its naturalistic stage conventions and added in commentary (additional text!) from an American football match, to illustrate scenes of violence. The difference was, rather than hating it, Stephens found watching it marvellous, and the production sparked a long running collaboration and friendship between the German auteur and British author (most recently Carmen Disruption at Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, review from The Guardian here).

This collision of the two theatrical cultures feels like it happened at the optimum moment. In 2004 easyJet started flying low-cost flights to Berlin; a new generation of British theatre-makers, writers, directors, could suddenly get access to another theatrical culture for less than the price of a train ticket to another city in the UK.

The Barbican began importing the (comparatively anglo-friendly) work of Thomas Ostermeier. The artistic director of the National Theatre Nicholas Hytner damned the whole pantheon of mainstream British theatre critics as Dead White Males. Suddenly, quite aside from Britain's own strong "alternative" theatre scene (Forced Entertainment, et al.), who had been exporting to mainland Europe for years, Britain was confronted with a "mainstream" theatrical practice which looked visually stunning and intellectually streets ahead of the pat "political dramas" of our "leading playwrights" like David Hare or David Edgar. 

However, despite all this discontent, aside from the Young Vic theatre in London, which often imported already-famous directorial stars from mainland-Europe, there were very few places where these different ways of making work could be explored or seen. 

Added to these artistic questions were institutional ones. British actors started to notice the difference between the salaried ensemble members in Germany, with their holidays and annual contract, and the six-week contracts they were being offered. Another question never off the table in British theatre were the ongoing problems of representation of class, race, gender and disability – not least because Shakespeare, played traditionally, offered almost all male, nearly all white, and mostly upper class parts. And a frightening number of other playwrights, right up to the present day, tended to follow. All of the above formed the basis of what "Secret Theatre" set out to challenge. 

In the heart of a building site

Sean Holmes, the director of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, knew that building work was going to be done on the theatre between 2013 and 2014. Various parts of the theatre would have to be closed off to the public, but (so the theory ran) the auditorium would still be accessible. The idea of there being a "secret theatre" in the heart of a building site appealed to Holmes, and he decided, while the building work was being carried out, that rather than let the theatre close altogether, he would assemble an ensemble of actors, writers, directors, and designers who would create work for this hidden auditorium. The ensemble had equal gender representation, was multi-ethnic, included a disabled actor, and covered the entire class spectrum. The ensemble was also dedicated to exploring a different approach to making the work. 

On top of this, distractingly, the "secret" aspect of "Secret Theatre" also became something of a marketing strategy, whereby the names of the plays were not released to the press before they opened. The pieces were simply labelled #ShowOne, #ShowTwo, #ShowThree and so on. On balance, this was a mistake. It acted as a red-rag to the press, who, already perhaps a bit sniffy at the idea that "Secret Theatre" wanted to change the way things were done, couldn't wait to spill the beans. This had the odd result that the biggest controversy when the first show (not "Show One", but "Show Two"!) opened – Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" – had nothing to do with the production, and everything to do with the fact that the (former) Sunday Express critic Mark Shenton Tweeted the name of the show in the interval. 

SecretTh2 560 LyricHammersmith x"Show Two" aka "A Streetcar named Desire" © Lyric Hammersmith, London

A small, shrill cry of outrage went up on Twitter and suddenly there was a consensus that no one must *ever* reveal details of "Secret Theatre" shows without elaborate early warnings. As a result, the news story the next day was not the radicalism of the gesture that this production represented. Rather than the naturalistic set Anglophone audiences are used to, the staging used just three high stark white walls, props replaced by watermelons and birthday balloons; Blanche was played by Nadia Albina, an actress born with one arm missing below the elbow, Stanley by Estonian actor Sergo Vares. And, perhaps most "shocking" to British audiences, the cast used their natural accents (more in a fine review of it by Dan Hutton here).

"Show One", a far more radical (by British standards) attempt on Büchner's "Woyzeck" – a kind of David Lynch style nightmare, played in semi-darkness, under strobe lights, with characters dressed in animal-onesies and the whole stage wrapped in thick green plastic, perhaps fared better for not having opened the season (read Dan Hutton's review here). Excitement had been generated, but at the same time so, perhaps, had a slight sense of disappointment. The company had enshrined the crucial "right to fail" into their manifesto – the only way you can experiment is if you're willing for something not to work. And while these pieces were in no way failures, they weren't always the knock-out sensations that "Three Kingdoms" had been, and that, obviously, everyone had wanted them to be. 

SecretTh1 560 LyricHammersmith x"Show One" was based on Georg Büchner's "Woyzeck" © Alexandra Davenport / Lyric Hammersmith, London

Since that heady September half a year ago, two further shows have opened, (Show Three and Show Four), each successful in their own ways, and each showing the ensemble dealing with new challenges – in the case of "Show Three", the unwillingness of a relatively inexperienced British playwright to have their new play not played relatively straight. However, the life of the ensemble has now been extended. In summer they take the shows on tour around Britain, and further shows are planned in the interim. 

German theatre scene as a springboard

Perhaps the most fascinating question that "Secret Theatre" raises, is the extent to which it's possible to begin to appropriate a theatrical culture without also being surrounded by the culture from which it sprang. I should emphasize that it was never the ensemble's intention just to "make German theatre". The lack of a serious, dedicated, ever-present dramaturg within the ensemble, and the lack of, well, a German audience already familiar with the sort of ideas being presented, underlined just two of the difficulties with which the company have been faced.

However, the ensemble continues to go from strength to strength, creating ever more exciting and unpredictable work. It seems likely to me that rather than ending up in a place resembling "German theatre" (as if that could even be identified as one thing), the German theatre scene will simply have been a springboard from which the company discover a theatrical language and ways of working entirely of their own.

More info (plus photos and videos) on the ongoing project "Secret Theatre" on the Lyric Hammersmith's website here.

In October 2013 Andrew Haydon reflected a debate on theater criticism and its crisis in the UK for nachtkritik.de – here is the English original and here the German translation.

All English texts on nachtkritik.de are listed here.

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