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Playwright Marius von Mayenburg: ‘old-fashioned’ in Germany, cutting edge in Canada

Marius von Mayenburg’s preference for story and character aren’t attributes appreciated as much in his home country as they are abroad.

Marius von Mayenburg is a maverick among German playwrights, a real radical with an unorthodox approach to writing plays. Unorthodox in his country, that is.

"I still believe in story and I still believe in character," the father of two young children says, with a hint of sheepishness, and also sleepiness, over coffee in the canteen at the Schaubuhne city theatre.

This may not sound that off-the-wall in Canada. But in Germany, many critics and directors favour texts that are political, poetic or – to use the trendy term coined by German theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann – postdramatic. Mayenburg's emphasis on people and plot makes his plays seem "old-fashioned," he says.

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But those same attributes have helped translate the 41-year-old into one of the most produced contemporary German playwrights in the English-speaking world today. And, in Canada anyway, his plays can seem quite cutting edge.

The Ugly One, Mayenburg's 2007 dark comedy about a man named Lette who goes from hideous to handsome thanks to the intervention of the world's top plastic surgeon, has a had a real vogue in recent years with productions popping up in Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal and Toronto.

Director Ashlie Corcoran's scalpel-sharp take of the surreal show – named the best independent production of the year at 2012 Dora Awards in Toronto – is currently being remounted as part the Tarragon Theatre season, then will move to the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque this summer.

Mayenburg's most-travelled play, The Ugly One came about almost by accident. "I was writing a different play and I had this idea," he recalls. "What if you were really ugly and suddenly you were really beautiful? What would change in your life? Would you be the same person?"

Mayenburg started to jot down the thought – and two weeks later, he had a script. His simple premise is given a very theatrical execution as Lette shifts from grotesque to gorgeous without any change in makeup or costume; matters are complicated when the surgeon's reputation spreads and everyone becomes a beauty.

If Mayenburg's sensibility as a writer works well to the English-speaking world, it may have to do with his close relationship with British playwrights. At the behest of Schaubuhne's artistic director Thomas Ostermeier, he has translated works by the likes of Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane, but one particular playwright has had the biggest influence on his work: William Shakespeare.

As I met with Mayenburg, he was in rehearsals for his own German-language production of Much Ado About Nothing – having recently branched into directing for Schaubuhne, which he has had a relationship as playwright and dramaturge with for over a decade. (He's previously translated Measure for Measure, Othello and Hamlet for the theatre.)

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Describing the themes of Much Ado, Mayenburg could just as easily be talking about The Ugly One. "It's about identity, about crisis of identity, how you see yourself and how other people see you – that you don't create your own reality, but that reality is created by others around you," he says.

As Mayenburg points out, in Much Ado not a single character in the play falls in love on his or her own accord; all the couplings are the result of plots and intrigues devised by others. In his production in Berlin, Mayenburg took the masked ball as cue for the entire show – turning it into a parade of costumes inspired by classic cinema.

That who you are is as much what others project on you, and surfaces as are important as depths is a recurrent thread in Mayenburg's work. In 2010's Perplexed, for instance, a couple come home from a holiday to find that the friends who were taking care of their apartment are now claiming to be its rightful owners.

The slipperiness of identity is at the very heart of theatre – where everyone who steps on stage is pretending to be someone else and the audience goes along with it.

In Germany, scripts can be as malleable as actors – as directors and dramaturges take a play and turn it into what they want it to be. It's a performance culture Mayenburg grew up in and is comfortable with, but it hasn't always made him as popular in his country as contemporaries such as René Pollesch who leave copious room for interpretation and invention. Mayenburg recalls: "One time a director told me that he wouldn't like to direct a play of mine even though he thought it was good, because he told me, 'I could only do what you write … You didn't leave enough space for me.'"

But Mayenburg sees no reason to change: "I think, as an artist, why shouldn't I fill the play with all my ideas? Why should I pretend that I don't have them?"

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Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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