Theatre that touches audiences with real-world concerns


February 28, 2018

Enemy2Photo Arno Declair

Theatre director Thomas Ostermeier, once known as the “bad boy” of German theatre — a label he says he left behind with his 30s — is no stranger to Asia. His theatre, Berlin’s famous Schaubühne, has travelled widely with different productions, including to Beijing, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Taipei and Australia. Known for his innovative and at times astonishing plays, Ostermeier says audiences in the region have been largely enthusiastic and very open to the theatre’s aesthetics.

The 49-year-old resident director of the Schaubühne is eager to see how Singapore audiences will receive his play, the critically successful An Enemy of the People when it stages at SIFA in a Southeast Asian premiere. We caught up with him beforehand for a chat about Enemy’s universal themes, audience participation, and the role of theatre.

Your genre of capitalist realism has been seen as reflecting your own critique of Western capitalism. It’s been said that at the Schaubühne, repertory decisions are made on the basis of political facts and trends in society. Do you see your theatre as a platform for change?

I don ?t believe in theatre as a place for political protest. But in the best case you can take a position and try to encourage your audience to stand up for one's belief. But anyway it ?s not enough to do that in the theatre. Politics is made outside of the theatre and I don ?t mean only big politics made in parliament, but in daily interactions. Theatre cannot replace that.

An Enemy of the People is based on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play, which may not be familiar to Asian audiences. Do you think there is a universal theme they can identify with?

The social context of this production is about how people live in a society that privileges economic relations above personal ones. It`s a psychological drama about courage and moral rectitude. Dr. Stockmann discovers there is a serious health problem with the town’s baths which are the source of the town’s wealth – the water is toxic. The town doesn’t want to admit it for fear of impoverishment. But Stockmann blows the whistle on it. One year after we started touring this show, (Edward) Snowden blew a slightly bigger whistle.

In a portion of Enemy, audiences are asked to participate. This has seen robust engagement from European audiences. Has this been different in Istanbul or Seoul, and do you expect theatre-goers here to be any different?

The reactions were different in every country and not always how we expected. We went to Istanbul (in 2013) while the protests in Gezi (Park) were going on and the political atmosphere was heated up, and so was the discussion in the audience. In Moscow, we had people from the audience coming on the stage in order to support the protagonist and in New York, people discussed the issues very emotionally. But in Poland the audience was very quiet, almost too shy to speak up. So I ?m curious about your audience in Singapore.

You said in an interview that you never wanted to do this play as the characters were too one-dimensional....

I had it on the list for a long time, and it came up at weekly meetings with my collaborators, the dramaturgs. I wasn ?t quite convinced but they insisted and it turned out that they were absolutely right to do so.

What do you seek to touch in your audiences with your play? What do you want them to walk away with?

I'm trying to find the core of each play, to touch on the actual concerns of the audience and to infect them with the urgency of these issues. If someone walks out of this play rethinking his or her position, I ?m happy.

  • 2018