Susanne Kennedy

Susanne Kennedy © Jan Versweyveld
Susanne Kennedy © Jan Versweyveld
Susanne Kennedy © Jan Versweyveld

Susanne Kennedy was born in 1977 at Friedrichshafen and studied directing at the School of the Arts in Amsterdam. After graduating, she directed numerous productions in the Netherlands, primarily at NTGhent and the National Theatre in The Hague. Her work included plays by Ibsen, Jelinek and Fassbinder, and she was invited to present stagings at several Dutch theatre festivals. Since 2009, she has been active as a director in Germany as well. She was voted young director of the year in the 2013 Theater heute critics’ survey. In 2014, she was asked to take Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt (Purgatory in Ingolstadt) by Marieluise Fleißer to the Berlin Theatertreffen, where she was awarded the 3sat prize for pioneering, artistically innovative achievement.

    Susanne Kennedy: Portrait

    Susanne Kennedy © Jan VersweyveldIs Susanne Kennedy actually a German director at all? She was born at Friedrichshafen in 1977, but trained at the School of the Arts in Amsterdam. There, Kennedy remembers, ‘my way of making theatre was always regarded as German.’ Even so, she never had the sense she was coming home when she put on her first pieces of drama in her mother country (including Platz der Republik by Katharina Schmitt at Oldenburg in 2009). On the contrary: ‘I felt it was more as if I had arrived somewhere foreign.’ One thing she found difficult to get used to was how German actors speak – ‘With the whole chest. There’s so much air in there!’ Not only are performances much more physical in Dutch theatre, Kennedy explains, but the scripts are also delivered far more naturally.

    Given this, it is surprising that Susanne Kennedy definitely did not tell the cast of her first major directorial work in Germany to use the most natural tone possible. In Purgatory in Ingolstadt at the Munich Kammerspiele, which was invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2014, the actors heightened Marieluise Fleißer’s synthetic dialect to achieve a maximum of artificiality. In doing so, they seemed to literally stoop beneath the weight of the words. ‘I am interested in how language becomes physical,’ Susanne Kennedy declares. It was only apparently inconsistent with this approach that she simultaneously disconnected the language from the actors’ bodies in Purgatory – all the dialogues were played from tape, while the performers mimed along silently, synchronising their lip movements with the soundtrack. Fleißer’s figures uttered their platitudes and vicious remarks as if remotely controlled, but the malevolence of their words had left behind unmissable traces in their waxen, painted faces and tense bodies. Here, their mental deformations became physical. Susanne Kennedy talks of a ‘vision of humanity’ that she makes visible on the stage.

    Many of the audience responded with great bemusement to these petit bourgeois zombies, whom Kennedy had released into a nightmarish space that was given an uncanny life of its own by flickering video projections. The production was met with boos and cheering at its premiere. The director was startled, but pleased as well: ‘The energy with which people showed their agitation, I found that fantastic! I occasionally missed this absolute passion in Holland.’ Something that was true of Dutch actors as well. She still finds it amazing how German performers speak in the theatre, but how they speak about the theatre, with dedication and enormous knowledge, fills her with total enthusiasm. There are consequently plenty of good reasons for her to carry on working in Germany.

    In Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Mr. R. Run Amok?) (Munich Kammerspiele, 2014) based on the film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, Susanne Kennedy picked up where her version of Purgatory in Ingolstadt had left off. Once again, her characters moved around an oppressive space – this time a dreary party cellar with walls clad in tongue and groove panelling; once again, the characters had something zombie-like about them – this time due to the ghostly silicon masks that inscribed their inability to cope with life into their faces; and once again, the play was performed in full playback mode – although this time the dialogues from the screenplay, which consisted almost completely of inconsequential, quotidian verbiage, had been recorded by amateurs. As a result of the amateurish style of the readings, which oscillated between monotony and overemphasis, there was something painfully trivial about the banalities that accumulated before the viewer’s eyes. Susanne Kennedy did not tell the story of Mr. R. killing his family as a case study of a social outsider. If there was an answer to the question of why he ran amok, it lay in the commonplace ordinariness of his doings, which were dragged out at unbearable length. In them, the spectator was also able to see the nullity of their own existence reflected. At times, this was excruciating. But it was especially its excruciating aspects that gave this work its unique quality. ‘I am interested in states,’ says Susanne Kennedy. By contrast, the action recedes into the background. Which is why her stagings often have an impact reminiscent of installations, dominated as they are by a strong will to form and clear concepts. It was this that was viewed as particularly German about her in Holland.

    Susanne Kennedy certainly likes the label ‘installation’. She is very much concerned to stretch the boundaries of theatre so it encompasses elements of other art forms. But the phrase ‘will to form’ makes her uneasy because she feels it sounds too rational. ‘Like a sculptor, I try to impose form on time and space – but do this inspired by strong emotions.’
    Christoph Leibold

    Productions (Selection)

    Susanne Kennedy © Jan VersweyveldRainer Werner Fassbinder "Why does Mr. R. run Amok?"
    2014, Munich Kammerspiele
    Invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen

    Susanne Kennedy/Jeroen Versteele after Horace McCoy
    "They shoot horses, don't they?"
    2011, Munich Kammerspiele

    Marieluise Fleißer "Purgatory in Ingolstadt"
    2013, Munich Kammerspiele
    Invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen

    Katharina Schmitt "Platz der Republik"
    (i.e. "Square of the Republic")

    2009, Staatstheater Oldenburg