"I don't see the female characters"en

Lorenzo Silva © Mireya de Sagarra

Annemie Vanackere © Max Lautenschläger

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Annemie Vanackere on the vote for the great heroes of European literature

Presenter: Frank Meyer, Deutschlandradio Kultur

According to a survey by the Goethe-Institut, Don Quixote is the most important figure in European literature, followed by the authors Shakespeare and Goethe. It is regrettable that Anna Karenina is the only one woman to feature in the literary top 10, says Annemie Vanackere, Artistic Director of the Berlin HAU cultural centre.

Frank Meyer:What constitutes Europe, what are the key ideas and inventions from Europe? What are the beacons of European culture? The Goethe Institute wanted to find out, so it launched a large-scale culture survey, interviewing 20,000 people in 30 European and neighbouring countries. Here at Deutschlandradio Kultur, we are taking a look at the results of this European survey, and after discussions with people including writers, architects and philosophers, today we are talking with theatre director Annemie Vanackere. For a year, she has been running the Hebbel am Ufer cultural centre - or HAU - in Berlin. Welcome, Mrs. Vanackere!

Annemie Vanackere: Hello!

Meyer: As I have mentioned previously, in the survey by the Goethe Institut, Don Quixote won the competition for the most compelling literary character, Don Quixote from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes. In your opinion, who is actually the most compelling figure from a European novel or play?

Vanackere: I think that's an incredibly difficult question. In this list, there are ten characters who are leading the way. What struck me is that there was only one woman among them: and she is Anna Karenina, a tragic figure, you might say. Then I thought, yes, actually the female characters are missing. In fact, you can go back to the beginning of the theatre to find strong female characters, for example, Antigone or Medea. This is one thought that occurred to me when I saw this list.

Meyer: So they would be on your shortlist, Antigone, Medea, that kind of strong female character from Antiquity?

Vanackere: Definitely. And probably, every phase of life throws up different heroes or heroines. There is an author who is probably not particularly well known here: As a teenager, I read a lot of Louis Couperus, an early 20th century Dutch author. Eline Vere is actually Holland's Anna Karenina, so to speak. I probably would not read it any more now. So it changes a bit according to the stage of your life that you have reached, I would say.

Meyer: But I find it interesting that you mention Greek Antiquity, because you would have thought that in this kind of European survey, the characters that would stand out would be the ones who form the foundation of our shared European culture, i.e. figures from Antiquity. But if you look at it, you actually find a rather fragmented picture. So Don Quixote has only a few points, but it is the highest score, then there are a few points for Shakespeare, a few for Goethe, and the Italians rate Dante as the best, the Estonians find Pippi Longstocking the most compelling. This is actually a very fragmented picture of European culture. You have moved around quite a lot in the European theatre scene. Did that give you the impression that it is actually a patchwork too, a very fragmented scene?

Vanackere: Actually, those are exactly the kind of differences that you try to discover for yourself, and at the same time I would say that the ancient tragedies on the one hand and, for example, Shakespeare, are played everywhere. These figures are put on stage everywhere, even in America and Africa, so to speak. But the differences are what most appeals to me on my travels. And to see what people bring here too. So I would not interpret that as negative.

Meyer: You are now bringing international productions, especially European productions, to the HAU cultural centre here in Berlin. You previously did something similar in Rotterdam, if I have understood correctly, because you set up a theatre festival, "De International Keuze", (the International Selection). So what does that contribute, bringing theatre from one country to another? Because originally, we see theatre as a very national affair.

Vanackere: That is a very important question. If I see a production in a completely different cultural context, I really have to ask myself: What does it mean, if I re-locate it, both for the staging and for the audience? Because that is all tied together. At the same time, I think that these international productions on stage can open our eyes. At least, that's what it did for me, and so I'm glad I can do it as my profession. You get to know about other forms, other languages, other emotions.

But of course you are right, language has an important role to play, for example, there are surtitles. I am very used to it, I come from a small language culture - Dutch is my mother tongue - I grew up with surtitles, on TV too, we see that everywhere. I also love to hear other languages. That's the only thing I miss on German television that I never see films in their original language. And in the theatre, I just think it is important to hear and see other languages.

Meyer: Given the economic crisis that we are experiencing in Europe, and which has hit us hard in recent years, the question has arisen of what really holds us together, why do we actually live together in this European Union. Do you think that theatre has something to contribute there, to open our eyes to what really binds us together?

Vanackere: Very fundamentally, one could say that theatre-going is really very important in a European culture. One might say that the birth of the theatre was 2,500 years ago in Greece and has spread throughout Europe and of course to other continents. But I think that theatre-going is very deeply rooted in our culture. And democracy as a form or as a place, where people meet and exchange ideas, I feel it is very closely connected with the theatre.

Meyer: Deutschlandradio Kultur - the Goethe Institute asked in 30 countries, what constitutes Europe, and we are talking about it with the Belgian theatre director Annemie Vanackere, who has been running the HAU cultural centre in Berlin for the past year. You were born in Kortrijk, i.e. in the Flemish part of Belgium. Belgium is something like the heartland of the European Union, at least when you consider that the largest European institutions have their seat there in Brussels. What is it like as a Belgian woman, do you have a special take on Europe, or is it something that is totally self-evident?

Vanackere: I believe that many Belgians think that they actually a sort of model country for Europe. I said many Belgians - maybe I am distancing myself from it slightly, because I have lived in Holland for the last 16 years, and perhaps I have rather more of an outsider's view of my country. Of course, in Brussels, there is the European Parliament, it's just there, and I think that for many intellectual Belgians, their thinking goes: if we are able to live together, then it will work for Europe too, even if there is a lot of bureaucracy, and a lot of quarrelling. Yet it is the heartland of Europe.

Meyer: When you say "if we are able to live together here in Belgium", you are probably referring to the conflict between the Flemish and Walloon populations, which has flared up again in recent years, and where people sometimes wonder: Does Belgium have any future as a country? How do you see the future of Belgium?

Vanackere: When I moved to Holland, that was at the end of 1995, I just left Belgium. And when I came back afterwards to visit my family, I increasingly felt that I was coming back to Flanders. The use of the word Flanders has grown enormously, so this separation in people's minds has become greater, you are absolutely right about that. But it's a small country, and Brussels is located in the middle, and neither Flanders nor Wallonia can actually say "Brussels is ours". That's why I don't really think that the country can be separated, because Brussels is such a crucial problem. Unless you make Brussels a city-state or something, but I don't think …

Meyer: Belgium would then break into three parts.

Vanackere: Exactly, yes, exactly.

Meyer: Sometimes you get the impression, especially when you look at Scotland which also wants to be independent, that in Europe, the further European integration progresses, the stronger the need to be at home in a region, and also to be independent as a region. Is this something that people cannot live without, having a clearly defined space in which they feel at home?

Vanackere: I'm afraid so. I think that I have wished for a long, long time that we did not need all of that. I know where I come from, and that will also not change, although I feel comfortable here. In the back of my mind, I was born in Kortrijk, but I have to cope with that. I also believe that intellectual people cannot be so naive as to think that we can leave all that behind us. But if the region is too small, personally I find it too restrictive. I want to be myself and I am not keen on being pigeonholed in such a small group. That's why I'm here, I think.

Meyer: Here meaning Berlin these days ...  How does it feel, coming from Belgium, having lived for a long time in the Netherlands, now living in Germany - do you still feel that you are a Belgian or you see yourself a European now?

Vanackere: Both, I think. Being here has almost made me more Belgian, funnily enough, because it's a different language area, and in Belgium people look at me differently. At the same time I know that I like being in Europe.

Meyer: The survey by the Goethe Institute also asked: In which country outside of your homeland would you like to live? And a majority of your fellow countrymen, the Belgians, said: Italy. 15 per cent said: I would like to live in Italy. Now you have wound up in Germany, in Berlin. Was it a good choice, or would Italy have been a better idea?

Vanackere: A few years ago, I went quite often to Rome for private reasons, and of course it is so beautiful. The Eternal City! But being there for a long time and working there, it's almost like Belgium, as a foreigner you will not get anywhere, and that is even more the case as a foreign woman. That is really tough, and I would like to work, and I am passionate about it. And that is why I am glad that I also have this chance to work.

Meyer: What constitutes Europe - the Goethe Institute wanted to find out by means of a large-scale cultural survey in 30 countries. We have been talking about it with theatre director Annemie Vanackere, who has been running the HAU cultural centre in Berlin for the past year. Thank you for talking to us!

Vanackere: You're welcome!

Broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur on 19/08/2013: http://www.dradio.de/dkultur/sendungen/thema/2221470/