Close-Up 2016 Goethe's Clavigo in Riga

Photo: Cornelius Wüllenkemper

Austrian Volker Schmidt staged Goethe’s Clavigo at the Latvian National Theatre as a modern fable about a man torn between love and career, between authenticity and capitalist pressure to succeed.

Volker Schmidt, you are putting on Goethe’s Clavigo in Riga. How did you come to choose this material?

The basic idea was – since I’m Austrian – we would take a classical German-language piece, something not yet known here. This will be its Latvian premiere. The material also appealed to me because I find it very up-to-date. It is about what we understand as a romantic relationship. Is it about love in the romantic sense, or is a relationship something representative, something we ornament ourselves with that helps us in life? When the play was written, there was a transition from the courtly era, from the representative to the authentic, to deeply felt love. Today, the social media have given us a new kind of representation. We like to represent ourselves, we show how happy we are, what a great relationship we are in. That was the idea that I wanted to show with this play.

Goethe set the play in Spain. Where does your production take place? Or is there no fixed location?

Of course, we also spoke of Spain, but the play is by a German author, we are staging it in Latvian in Riga. There are simply so many local overlaps that the place actually has no relevance. The idea is also that it can happen anywhere in the world.

How was it to work with an Austrian-German-Latvian team? What challenges did you face?

The language! I made a version of the text by simplifying Goethe’s words and transferring it to today. In the translation that was changed again. But the language was also a challenge in the rehearsal process. At the same time, the translation is also a possibility to make the play more contemporary. Dealing with the language was the focus of the work.

Thea Hofmann-Axthelm, tell us something about the stage design. I assume it wasn’t easy to bring Goethe of 250 years ago into the present-day. Where did you begin?

With a sentence by Carlos who demands of Clavigo, “Decide now between a quiet life and the high aims that you can achieve.” It’s an idea I’m familiar with. On the one hand I wanted to create an abstraction for these two worlds he needs to decide between. And on the other hand I sought actual places that are like offers to play for the actors that are challenging and can be altered for many scenes. Then I first looked at our stage in the National Theatre and the idea came to me: why not? We’ll make it very contemporary! The cars: on one hand a strong symbolic language and on the other it offers plenty of acting material. It expressed the central ideas of the play and yet offers a great deal of freedom.

Does it play a role in your work where you are producing it, where you design the stage? Did the fact that you were here in Riga play a role in your work?

It always plays a role! You attempt to open yourself to the situation. What’s going on here, how do the people move about, how can they identify with the stage design? How can I create a mirror image? I look around me and try to deal with where I am and also to talk to the actors about it, also about the costumes. And this joint work results in what you later see in the performance.

Volker Schmid, this is your first production in Latvia. What did you learn about the Latvian theatre landscape and about the Latvian way of making theatre?

Because we worked a lot ourselves and have not seen much of what the others do, I can only talk about our own work. And it was interesting to see that the Russian school, for example Konstantin Stanislavski and naturalism, play a bigger role here than with us. I understand this as a quality, because there is this authentication, just to be able to say things, and that has mind-boggling power. And then I said, let’s try this realistim! But because Goethe was not a naturalist, but the exchange of ideas, images, and attitudes is entirely existential with him, we tried to break through that again and again. This was actually the main point, the most interesting in the work: The question when we break down the one-on-one situations and go out to the audience, when do we interrupt the flow? For me this was an exciting encounter with another theatre culture that was very interesting and very fruitful.