Multilingualism on stage
The Europeanisation of the Theatre

„Three Kingdoms“, director: Sebastian Nübling, Munich Kammerspiele; f.l.t.r.: Ferdy Roberts, Risto Kübar, Nick Tennant, Steven Scharf
„Three Kingdoms“, director: Sebastian Nübling, Munich Kammerspiele; f.l.t.r.: Ferdy Roberts, Risto Kübar, Nick Tennant, Steven Scharf | Photo (detail): © Arno Declair

German municipal theatres have long been internationally networked. Now the linguistic boundaries are also beginning to fall away: foreign languages are being spoken on the German stage. The theatre is becoming more European.

Perhaps we will someday regard this performance as one of the beginnings of a new European theatre. In Three Kingdoms , the director Sebastian Nübling and the author Simon Stephens send their investigators up and down Europe: first to England, then Germany, and finally Estonia. The actors too come from the corresponding countries, the English ones from the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London, the Estonians from Theatre N099 in Tallinn and the Germans from the Munich Kammerspiele. And on stage they all speak in their own languages – the English in English, the Estonians in Estonian and the Germans in German. The story, a murder mystery, works in spite of this. Or precisely because of this.

‘You have to overcome the fear of foreign languages’, says Matthias Günther, dramaturge at the Kammerspiele, about this and similar projects. He means not only the actors, but also the audience. ‘Then it works. In the past the audience likewise got used to surtitles.’ Günther even speaks of an ‘understanding terror’ reigning in the theatre. ‘We think we may speak only the national language on stage because in traditional theatre we always act as if we were constantly understanding everything.’

With its Dutch artistic director Johan Simons and many Belgian and Dutch actors, the Kammerspiele are something like the theatrical vanguard of the European unification process. When here the Finnish director Kristian Smeds works up The Imaginary Siberian Circus of Rodion Raskolnikow with actors from four countries, it comes out of a very strange, Finnish-mythical world. Nor can interpreters remove all misunderstandings in the rehearsals. The Latvian playwright and director Alvis Hermanis also presents his works at the Kammerspiele, plays that, with their extreme naturalistic sets and hyper-illusionary performances, have an independent second level in addition to the language. And the Estonian actor Risto Kübar, who in Three Kingdomsplays a singer who repeatedly sings Hans Albers’s La Paloma, is now playing the main role in Nübling’s Orpheus Descending at the Kammerspiele. He does this mainly in German, although he cannot speak the language well.

Globally connected

With the appointment of Simons as artistic director, the Head of the Munich Cultural Department Hans-Georg Küppers deliberately set the Kammerspiele on this path. But the Kammerspiele is by no means the only theatre in Germany that operates internationally. In Staffan Waldemar Holm the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus had a Swedish artistic director, and the Schauspielhaus Bochum has opened its programme up, calling itself ‘Boropa’

The independent scene, which is less language-oriented, has long operated internationally; for instance, the Belgian-born Annemie Vanackere has taken over as artistic director of the HAU in Berlin. But the Berlin Schaubühne is also globally linked from Avignon to Sydney as are few other theatres. In Cologne, directors from many countries – for example, England, Hungary and Italy – have gathered almost traditionally round the artistic director Karin Beier. In general, directors from almost all European countries work in the German theatre – though this is due not only to cosmopolitanism but also to the local pressure for innovation.

But new, or nearly new, is that there are now actors on stage whose mother tongue is not German. Yet this too was tried before. In the 1990s there was Karin Beier’s legendary, international A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Currently there is the Bulgarian actress Jeanette Spassova at the Berlin Volksbühne. The Belgian actress Viviane de Muynk has performed in a Thomas Bernhard play produced by the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus at the 2007 Salzburg Festival. And before the Nazis there was also an attempt: by Brecht, who wanted an assistant director from the Moscow Art Theatre to work with him as an actress.

Rehearsal language: English

But such experiments have been attempted systematically only today. Naturally, they give rise to new problems and new ways of working. ‘The language used at rehearsals is more and more English’, says Matthias Günther. ‘Yet not only the language, but also the culture and, along with it, the theatre system in Germany is still very different. Finnish needs fewer words to express an idea or a feeling and therefore seems slightly insulting in German, as the rehearsals for Raskolnikow underlined.’

If they perform together, actors must come to terms with each other’s way of working. Here European rapprochement begins again anew. Three Kingdoms cannot be shown because the English actors are scheduled to perform elsewhere. But how well European understanding can work is shown by the Dutch and Belgian actors at the Kammerspiele: some already speak German so well that you begin to forget where they hail from.