Norbert Kentrup

Norbert Kentrup interviewed by Rory MacLean

Norbert Kentrup with Rory MacLean (behind)
Norbert Kentrup with Rory MacLean (behind)
Norbert Kentrup  
with Rory MacLean
What is the responsibility of an actor? To spout the wisdom of dead playwrights like gospel, or to make the words live in the hearts and mind of the audience? What is the role of the audience? To sit in the dark, silent and passive, or to open themselves to the possibility of being changed by a theatrical experience?

These questions came to mind when I met Norbert Kentrup, actor, director and co-founder of Shakespeare und Partner, the first theatre company in 350 years to perform at the (all-but-completed) London Globe Theatre in 1993. For three decades Kentrup has been a passionate and original voice on German theatre scene, working for the most part with the Bard’s plays.

“The idea of Shakespeare und Partner – and bremer shakespeare company before it – was to learn from Shakespeare,” Kentrup told me over frothy coffees near Potsdamer Platz. “He wrote modern plays for his time, but he based them on historical subjects. In the same way we’ve learnt to understand him and his work from a modern perspective. There was never the danger of us producing museum plays because he was such a modern writer.”

I asked why he thinks Shakespeare is relevant for contemporary audiences.

“Take Timon of Athens, one of the plays which we’re touring with this year. We’re in the middle of a credit crisis now and every word in the play is about squandering money. Or Henry VIII, which just finished its run at the Admiralspalast. Its original title is All is True, which means – as Shakespeare wrote it – it’s full of lies. All the play is lies. These days we’re very aware of politicians breaking their promises. In this production I focused on the lies and so the modern relevance. Even Romeo and Juliet is modern.”

“Aren’t love scandals rather outdated?” I asked to provoke him.

“What if the young lovers – both Romeo and Juliet – were women? How would their families react to their falling in love?” He explains, “In our productions we often switch gender, reversing expectations, updating the play to show modern reality – without changing a line of the text.”

Kentrup is always questioning, challenging, wheeling his arms around him like a dancer. The kinetic energy seems to spark off him, electrifying his thoughts and making his grey wild wisps of hair stand on end.

His acting career began at school. “At that age you become an actor because you’re smug and want everyone to look at you,” he said with disarming honesty. “But if you still feel that way at 20, you’re lost.”

In 1970 he joined the Städtische Bühnen Bremen, working with Kurt Hübner, Klaus Michael Grüber, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and others. “I had the luck to become part of this ensemble. I felt like Alice arriving in Wonderland. Remember, this was the late Sixties and early Seventies. These guys were very political. They had a message to convey. In those days the whole world seemed to be changing and I was happy to be a little part of the movement. It stopped me from being smug.”

He went on to join the Schauspiel Frankfurt, becoming part of its ‘parliament of actors’: reading scripts, studying budgets, learning how an actor could truly be part of a theatre, not just a paid hand.

“These years were very important for my personal development. We put on plays and they were very successful. I realised that I could start my own touring company, putting on political plays.”

About this time Kentrup met Samuel Wanamaker, the American film director and actor who’d moved to the UK after being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wanamaker’s dream was to recreate Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. He came to Germany to see a replica Globe in Neuss near Düsseldorf.

“Sam and I started talking – he in Yiddish, me in German – and we couldn’t stop. It was love at first sight and he became more important to me than my father. We both were political beings – we recognised this in each other – plus I was the kind of actor he wanted to have on the stage of the Globe.”

I asked Kentrup to describe this ‘kind’ of actor.

“An actor who is confident and free,” he replied. “Ein freier und selbstbestimmter Schauspieler. That’s necessary because on the Shakespearean stage the audience surrounds you on three sides and the actor needs to be able to respond to them.” He gulped a mouthful of coffee. “The problem with the British and American system is that it’s hierarchical. Plus British and American actors have to work in television and commercials just to survive. Also contracts are much too short so there’s never enough time to build up a good ensemble cast. Under these circumstances, how can an actor develop the sense – which is needed when performing in the round – that he or she is the centre of the world?”

Suddenly Kentrup is performing the introductory speech to Henry V, including Shakespeare’s instructions to actors.

Copyright: Shakespeare und Partner“The Goethe-Institut London helped Sam and me to get together,” he goes on. “The then chief of the cultural department Dr. Karin Herrmann wanted to bring Shakespeare ‘home from abroad’, to let the English see other possibilities. She made it possible for The Merry Wives of Windsor to be performed – in German – at the Globe while it was still under construction. Then two months before he died, Sam asked me to play Shylock in an English production. I didn’t speak the language but he convinced me, and the chairman of the Globe as well. I spent a year learning English and then did 64 performances of Merchant of Venice’.

I asked Kentrup for examples of his engagement with the audience.

“In Act IV Scene I, Shylock considers Bassanio's offer of 6000 ducats. As I was debating between accepting the ducats or demanding my pound of flesh, a Texan in the audience shouted at me, ‘Come on fat man, take the money and go home.’ I had to respond to him so I delivered the next line directly to him, as if to answer him ‘…If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat...’”

“Another time we were performing the murder of Desdemona...in a prison. Othello wasn’t doing a good job and one of the members of the audience said out loud, ‘He’s no professional’. Everyone in the audience laughed, but then we all went very, very quiet. The man in the audience was a murderer. These exchanges create energetic, emotional moments – and of course make the whole play more immediate.”

“How do you keep a parrot quiet?” Kentrup asked me. “By putting a blanket over his cage. Too often that’s what audiences are like today: sitting in the dark and staying quiet. I love Shakespeare’s plays because they were performed in daylight, in the round, as if in a marketplace. In my work I’ve combined his plays with the theories of Robert Weimann and Dario Fo. I want to enhance the interaction with the audience, to develop a political relationship them. I play at the Globe in a global world.”

Over the next two years Shakespeare und Partner will be touring Twelfth Night, Henry VIII and Romeo and Juliet – as well as Die Brüder Grimm by Kentrup’s partner Dagmar Papula – throughout Europe.

Rory MacLean
March 2009

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