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Lars Eidinger in Tartuffe.

Katrin Ribbe

Lars Eidinger is one of Germany's most accomplished stage actors – and also one of its most anarchic. An ensemble member at the Schaubühne in Berlin since 2000, the 39-year-old star can be found urinating in sinks, eating dirt and berating audience members in plays from Hedda Gabler to Hamlet (with which he has toured the world since 2008).

Eidinger is in Montreal through the weekend performing the title role in Molière's Tartuffe in a production by acclaimed director Michael Thalheimer that opens the Festival TransAmériques. He spoke with theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck over Skype fron Stuttgart, where he was filming a movie.

I saw a number of your performances at the Schaubühne in Berlin a couple years ago. I particularly liked your Hamlet: It was the first time I wondered not only whether Hamlet was going crazy, but whether the actor playing Hamlet was as well.

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That's a bit the idea of the whole production, or it became the idea. Shakespeare plays so much with this motif of a character who suddenly thinks, "Maybe I'm just an actor on a stage." I think it's always a great moment for a character… On the other hand, it's also a symbol for becoming insane.

The night I was there, you stopped the show when two women tried to sneak out for a bathroom break, asked where they were going – and then tapped your foot until they came back.

This happens all the time and it's always different because it's improvised. In Germany, the word for "entertainment" – Unterhaltung – is the same word we use for "dialogue." What fascinates people the most [about theatre] is that it's right there, you can influence it as an audience; if you shout something, you will change the way the actors play. This is something that a lot of actors avoid – but I try to make the people aware that they see me and I see them. Some people in the audience, they relax, they think they are anonymous, part of a big group – and if you point at someone and say, "What's your opinion?" or "What are you doing?" the people feel they are more present.

In a couple of plays I saw you in with English surtitles, you stopped, looked up at them and read them aloud.

Everybody sees the surtitles and I think it's a more truthful moment as an actor to say, "Yeah, I see them as well." It's always good to make it part of the performance.

Most of what I've seen you in has been directed by the Schaubühne's artistic director Thomas Ostermeier [whose An Enemy of the People opened the Festival TransAmériques in 2013]. What's it like working with Michael Thalheimer on Tartuffe?

It's very different. I think it's kind of impossible to improvise in this production. The whole form is much more stiff, but not in a negative sense. It's much more stylized, much more formal. There's not a lot of space to break out of this form.

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Does that make you feel constricted?

I enjoy it because it is so different from what I'm used to. If this was theatre in general, I think I would be disappointed – I need the other aspect much more.

I've heard people describe Ostermeier and Thalheimer as opposites as directors.

I do not think that Michael Thalheimer believes in realism on stage. And Thomas is very focused on realistic situations, always looking for the right tone; as long as it doesn't sound authentically or real for him, it doesn't feel right. For Michael, he's maybe more a musician in the way he thinks rhythmically. He's a drummer – and I think he has a feeling for the groove and the tempo.

Was it a big surprise when Thalheimer came over to Schaubühne to direct Tartuffe?

Yeah, because in the beginning he and Thomas were kind of fighting against each other. Michael was very successful with a production at the Deutsches Theater Berlin called Emilia Gallotti [which travelled to the Stratford Festival in 2008]. Of course, we were jealous – everybody went there and said, "It's a piece of shit." When I went home though, the images he was creating and the way the actors were performing stuck in my head. Thalheimer is able to invent images that you don't forget.

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You're also DJing at the Festival TransAmériques. Are you doing it in costume as Tartuffe?

I will DJ in my casual private clothes. I'm not a very skilful DJ. I prefer to just get drunk and play pop hits.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tartuffe plays to May 24 in German with English and French surtitles. Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck is speaking on a bilingual panel about Tartuffe and the Schaubühne on Saturday, May 23. For more information, visit fta.qc.ca.

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