Innocence / The Marriage Of Maria Braun / My Stories, Your Emails
Various venues
January / February, 2010
Forgive me for commenting rather late on a show whose reviews appeared in the last issue, but it opens up a more general topic.  In my Financial Times review of Innocence at the Arcola, I noted that director Helena Kaut-Howson had chosen not to follow author Dea Loher’s suggestion that the two black characters need not be played by black actors. “‘No need for pretence of authenticity,’ notes the stage direction, which is rather less true in a country whose discourse of race and multi-culturalism is more complex than that in which the play was written and is set.  I do not think a British writer would be allowed to deploy such figures so baldly as emblems of otherness.”  I should make clear that that isn’t intended to be a value judgement on the state of German diversity awareness (although on recent trips to Berlin I’ve noticed a publicly-funded poster campaign urging an attitude of “Diversity instead of uniformity”), just an observation on the different positions in which our two countries stand as a result of our differing experiences in this area.


I have to confess, though, that I was shocked on my last Berlin visit to see a production portraying black characters by means of golliwog-style masks.  Nor was this a minor venue: it was the Schaubühne’s production of a stage adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Marriage Of Maria Braun, directed by Thomas Ostermeier.  True, the masks were used only for a couple of minutes, and when the principal black American G.I. character had been established the white actor removed his mask and simply played the part; but it still left me uneasy.  I don’t think there was a significant degree of irony in the use of the masks, or at any rate not an obvious and sufficient degree.  I have nothing but admiration for the skill of German audiences in “reading” stage presentations, a kind of drama-literacy that puts almost all Britons to shame; but I am beginning to sense a blind spot in the extent to which we – any of us – realise that what we see on stage is not just a representation of concepts for the world of the play or concepts brought to bear upon the staging, but also a presentation of ideas and attitudes from the world beyond the play, attitudes which inform those staging decisions.  Hence, Loher’s suggestion about the actors in Innocence is not simply a blow against unthinking slavery to natural representation and a way of maintaining audience distanciation from the material, but also an indicator of a certain view towards the issue overall, and Kaut-Howson – I think wisely – decided not to derail a British audience’s perceptions of the play and the production by casting as the author suggested.


It can be a devil, this matter of presentation and representation, for practitioners, viewers and critics alike.  The most conspicuous example in this issue is Ursula Martinez’s show My Stories, Your Emails. It’s easy to see from the reviews that Rhoda Koenig and I were preoccupied by what seemed to us the hypocrisy underlying the show’s stance: that its representation of the people who emailed Martinez was also a presentation of a particular view that she held regarding them.  I don’t agree with Dominic Maxwell that she’s calling such judgements into play, and one reason why I disagree is a matter glanced at in passing in Maxie Szalwinska’s review when she speaks of “the way men view Martinez”. Not these men, but men. I was very conscious whilst watching the show that all the people she was showing were men.  Now, it’s possible that no women sent her any emails in the same way, but given Martinez’s sexuality and the constituency of much of her work I find that unlikely.  She decided, then, to portray an absolutely (ha! forgive me) black-and-white sexual divide in her show, a surprisingly reactionary stance for her and one which I’m afraid gave me no reason to believe that the resultant misandry in her presentation was deliberately intended in a complex, interrogatory way.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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