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Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

An irreverence for classics plays well in Berlin. Why not in Canada? Add to ...

Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s famed Schaubuhne theatre company, has made a name for himself internationally over the past decade with his productions of Henrik Ibsen’s plays.

But what does the German director really think of the 19th-century Norwegian playwright who penned such classics as A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler?

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“I’m not a big fan of his,” says Ostermeier, over the phone from Germany.

“I don’t think he’s an extraordinary writer – but he provides me with well-made, plot-driven plays, which I can then rewrite and adapt for my purposes.”

Would classical theatre in Canada be more exciting – and have more of an international reputation – if more of our directors took this nonchalant attitude to great dramatic writers like Ibsen, or Bernard Shaw, or Anton Chekhov? Might our reverence to dead playwrights’ words actually be hurting their plays?

Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – which opened the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal on Wednesday – is a great example of how being true to the spirit rather than text of a classic can make it thrive for a contemporary audience.

Ibsen’s 1882 play could not be more relevant today in a Canada trying to balance economic and environmental concerns in places like the Alberta oil sands – and where the federal government has been accused of muzzling scientists.

The plot focuses on a Dr. Stockmann, who discovers that the waste products from a nearby factory have contaminated the town’s new baths – a tourist attraction that significant public and private resources have been invested in.

When the doctor tries to bring the problem to light, he is astonished to find himself opposed by the mayor, by the newspapers and even by the townspeople – all of whom have an economic interest in the baths.

In Ostermeier’s thrilling version – which I saw in a sold-out house at the Festival d’Avignon in France last summer – the action is moved to a 21st-century spa town.

The opening scene takes place at a band rehearsal (where the characters perform an indie cover of Crazy by Gnarls Barkley) rather than a dinner party; a sexual subplot has been added between Stockmann’s wife and the newspaper editor; and the ending is changed so that Stockmann may be swayed by the power of money himself.

The most exciting alteration comes when Stockmann holds a town hall about his concerns – and the house lights come up. He begins to recite The Coming Insurrection, a call to arms written by French Communists in 2005, and actors placed in the audience bombard him with balloons filled with paint that cover the actor and the stage in colourful bursts.

While Ostermeier’s paint-bomb approach to Ibsen would be considered unusual in Canada, in Germany, he is considered conventional, according to Holger Syme, a University of Toronto professor currently working on a book comparing approaches to classics in Anglophone and Germanophone theatres.

That’s because Ostermeier keeps everything psychologically realistic in his production – his actors don’t break character, even when they are interacting with the audience. “That’s totally standard in the entire English speaking world, of course, but feels almost quaint in Berlin, where I’ve heard Ostermeier described as ‘conventional,’ ‘TV-like,’ ‘a bit glib,’ and ‘too polished’ by dramaturges at other houses and by critics,” explains Syme, in an e-mail from Berlin.

That’s why it’s a shame Ostermeier’s production – a sort of bridge between Canada’s actor-oriented and Germany’s director-oriented practices – is only being seen in Montreal and Quebec City, and not the English-speaking parts of the country, where classical productions (aside from Shakespeare, where there are more varied approaches) are stuck more often than not in period costumes and foreign accents. (After the North American premiere in Montreal, Enemy tours to major theatres in New York, Moscow, Paris, Istanbul and London.)

“Classics in Canada are almost always museum pieces – often pretty, often technically well-acted, but also generally quite predictable,” says Syme, who adds that “a reverential attitude to written drama is a very recent phenomenon in theatre history.”

Ibsen was a controversial writer in his time – and the cozy and safe Canadian productions of his plays are bizarre when you take into account the author’s original intentions. No one would have responded that Hedda Gabler was “a complete perversion of womanhood,” for instance, upon watching the Shaw Festival’s recent conventional version directed by Martha Henry.

By contrast, when I saw Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People in France, an impromptu debate erupted over democracy in the audience – and I was actually quite disturbed to discover how many in attendance had given up belief in the political process.

“I’m working more in the spirit of Ibsen than anybody else who does the play in a period-costume version,” says Ostermeier. “I’m trying to get close to the true meaning of the play, the core of the play; it’s not about the surface, it’s not about how people dress.”

In English Canada, we find ourselves in the odd position where a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to the classics. For instance, in Southern Ontario, the three most prominent non-profits – the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper – all focus on great works.

At the same time, however, we have absolutely no reputation internationally for our productions in this sphere.

Certainly, our classically trained actors are considered among the best in the world – and are in demand, particularly in the United States. But there is not an English Canadian director with an international reputation since the death of John Hirsch (with the notable exception of dual citizen Des McAnuff, better known for his rock operas).

Meanwhile, the Stratford Festival has seen its ticket sales shrink by 200,000 over the past decade, while the Shaw Festival – an institution that will still sometimes hand over major productions to actors with little or no directing experience to direct – relies more and more on mounting major musicals to keep its productions of Shaw and his contemporaries like Ibsen afloat.

Flash over to the Schaubuhne in Berlin, which according to Ostermeier has an audience that’s 80 per cent between 15 and 45 years of age. “Honestly, the only thing I’m really proud of with my theatre is our audience,” he says.

Three to watch in Montreal

Along with the PuSh Festival in Vancouver, Montreal’s annual Festival TransAmériques is one of the country’s biggest showcases for boundary-pushing dance and theatre artists from around the world. Germany’s Thomas Ostermeier is the biggest name on board this year, but here are three others those in-the-know are eager to see.

The artist: Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of Back to Back, a Melbourne-based theatre company with an ensemble of actors who have mental disabilities. The show: Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (May 30-June 2), a collective creation in which the Hindu God travels to Nazi Germany to reclaim the religious symbol known as the swastika. “It’s a celebration of what the courageous can do,” critic Chris Jones wrote on the show’s recent visit to Chicago.

The artist: Joël Pommerat, a French former artist-in-residence at Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord who has been developing a unique actor-driven style of playwriting with his Compagnie Louis Brouillard since 1990. The show: La Grande et fabuleuse histoire du commerce (June 7-8), his latest of more than two dozen plays, takes on the market. Le Monde describes Pommerat’s style as one “in which the words, the lights and the sound are all in dialogue with each other to describe a state of the world and of being.”

The artist: Marie Brassard, the Montreal creator who first made her name collaborating with Robert Lepage on international sensations like The Dragon’s Triology, before turning to her own intimate, technologically enhanced spectacles like Jimmy. The show: Trieste (runs May 25-27), named after the Italian city that has been home to Joyce, Rilke and Stendhal, is a “stage poem” that takes audiences from the Land of the Dead to the edge of the abyss. This is the world premiere.

Many performances presented with surtitles in English. For more information, visit fta.qc.ca.

 

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