? v new PLAY
Resisting the Plague
i Aaron Hicklin reports back from ; Germany where the Grassmarket i Project has been developing its
: latest show.
Jeremy Weller has never lacked imagination. It took great vision, as well as courage, to use homeless people from the streets in his powerful first play, Glad, which made his name on the 1990 . Edinburgh Fringe. Now in Berlin with The Plague, his most complicated play to date, Weller looks isolated, almost defeated. He speaks English, his cast speaks German; he asks for authenticity and truth, they demand scripts and characters; he is one, they are 30. Weller’s imagination may have taken a leap too far.
At the Volksbuhne in East Berlin, Weller shrivels from the apparatus of professional theatre. Hidden away in a small room he looks and acts like a man under siege. Perhaps he is. His Eastern German cast is intransigent and stubborn; the ten homeless Berliners he brought in are bolshie and generally drunk. Progress has been slow. ‘I really count on the beliefof the people in the project to actually carry it forward,’ says Weller. ‘If I ask them to put their life on the stage, they have to make the decision to do that. In Berlin it has taken 70 per cent of my energy to get them to be themselves before we even begin to develop a play.‘
Dominated by habit, the actors dismiss Weller’s soul-searching, and ﬂounder in improvisations. Their rejection of the project could not be clearer,
with rehearsals often disordered and chaotic. Paradoxically, the chaos on stage merely reflects the wider chaos of a society in which two distinct traditions have collided and a whole nation has been stripped of its identity.
Weller came to Berlin with a simple question: how does it feel to be East German? Maybe they do not know, or do not want to say, but you feel that an opportunity is being missed. By their very
The Grassmarket Proloct’s umer it The Big Tease
Weller’s imagination may have taken a leap too far.
antagonism to Weller, however, the actors have unwittingly revealed a side of contemporary Germany which gives the play a harsh and stark reality after all.
In the actors’ plainly voiced aggression towards Chris O’Connel, playing the role of a British director, German critics have been quick to read a metaphor for fascism. With seventeen people
killed in one weekend by right-wing extremists, just a week before The Plague opens, this unforeseen theme is perhaps no bad thing. Yet the actors, aware they are playing themselves, are clearly uncomfortable with these new implications.
As with all his plays. Weller‘s central figure in The Plague is the ambiguous director. motivated by genuine concerns, destroyed by his own idealism. Weller’s own experience is never far away, and the sense ofconfusion and isolation evoked is often pure autobiography. Equally, for all the conﬂict in The Plague, there are redeeming — and authentic — moments of trust and reconciliation. No scriptwriter could have created such a powerful story as that of Dietmar, who reveals thatthree of his friends on the Baltic coast have committed suicide; or ofTorsten, whose Jewish wife is afraid to leave her home, and whose name was defaced on her own front door.
It is precisely these scenes in the play, however, that show what could have been, had the actors opened up. ‘I have realised that it‘s impossible to do my kind ofwork without people who are willing to give it life through their lives,’ says Weller. ‘My work is made with the texts of people’s experiences, good and bad, because my work is about human experience. It’s a question of belief, and why people believe what they believe, because all ofthese beliefs create the world we live in."
Rejecting artifice in favour of ‘real lives’, Weller has made an institution of his method, drawing from the well of human experience in a crusade for ‘ the dispossesed. It has worked with searing results 'in Glad, Bad and more recently in Mad. The Plague too contains some of the most powerful scenes you are likely to see in a theatre, and when the homeless interact with the actors, the ensuing tensions are riveting. And yet you are aware that a lot more could have been said, and needs to be said. Oscar Wilde wrote that ifyou tell the truth, you are sure, sooner or later, to be found out. Perhaps these people are just too afraid of being
The Plague, Leirh Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri II-Sun
Film fun 1
Tim and Chris Britton are the boys who never grew up. Peter Pans ot the perlormance world, they tlnd themselves well into adulthood with, it anything, a more llnely developed capacity tor child-like lnventlon, home-made creation and oil-centre comedy than ever. As Forkbeard Fantasy they have delighted audiences l - at least the more tolerant ones - with i a batty procession ot theatrical adventures with insects, Inflatables i and torkllittrucks. As their alter-egos ! the Brittonionl Brothers, a couple ot would-be avant-garde movie moguls, r they create a part-nightmare,
part-comic world where the boundary between illm and reality suddenly shitts.
“The reviews always say how alannlng they lound it,’ says Tim Britton, a man incapable of lasting more than three sentences without giggling. ‘lt's primarily a very lunny show, but there is this underlying nightmare whlch is humorous in ltselt, because nightmare always ls.‘
The nightmare/comedy starts during the screening of Who Shot the Cameraman7, a Brittonlonl opus in which a tlgure appears who wasn’t present when the illm was shot. Determined not to be thrown by this, the pompous filmmakers attempt to sort out the problem only to be drawn Into the big screen themselves. Making
use at the antique Eisenstein projector - no Forkbeard show is complete without a plethora oi gadgets-the Brittonionls try to prove the Theory of Contraproiectlon and break down the celluloid divide.
‘The audience really till all when they start losing touch with what’s real and what’s not,’ says Britton with glee. ‘People are always mind-boggled by the timing at how on earth we do it. it is bloody difficult, but it's like timing in anything, lilm or theatre, you've got to get it right otherwise there’s no point in doing it. I think audiences stop going to see people it they can’t get their timing rlghtl’ (Mark Fisher)
An Experiment in Contraprojectlon, CCA, Glasgow, Wed 16-Thurs 17 Dec.
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L “The List 4- 17 December 1992