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adelaide festival


inside looking out

keith gallasch talks with playwright marius von mayenburg


Marius von Mayenburg, Benedict Andrews Marius von Mayenburg, Benedict Andrews
“WHEN WE STARTED, BENEDICT AND ME, WE BOTH WANTED TO START WITH NOTHING, FROM SCRATCH. SO WE DECIDED TO JUST GO INTO A REHEARSAL ROOM WITH ACTORS AND SEE WHAT HAPPENED. THE ONLY THING WE KNEW THAT WE WANTED TO TRY OUT WAS THIS GAME OF HIDE-AND-SEEK. I’D HAD THIS EXPERIENCE SOME YEARS AGO. FRIENDS OF MINE HAD JUST MOVED TO A NEW APARTMENT AND IT WAS NEW YEAR’S EVE. THE APARTMENT WAS HALF WAY EMPTY. THEY’D JUST MOVED IN. AND WE WERE A BIT DRUNK AND AFTER MIDNIGHT WE JUST DECIDED, LET’S PLAY HIDE-AND-SEEK AND SWITCH OFF THE LIGHTS. SO, WE WERE A GROUP OF MAYBE SIX OR EIGHT GROWN UP PEOPLE PLAYING IN THIS SPOOKY, EMPTY APARTMENT. AND IT WAS JUST AMAZING, ALL THESE EMOTIONS THAT CAME UP. ALL THESE FEARS OF BEING FOUND AND MAYBE NOT BEING FOUND AND HAVING TO STAY IN THAT HIDING SPOT FOREVER. OR MAYBE EVERYONE GOES TO A BAR AND THEY FORGET ABOUT YOU.”

I’d asked German playwright Marius von Mayenburg about the origins of Moving Target, the Malthouse commission which he wrote in collaboration with Benedict Andrews who had directed his Fireface for the Sydney Theatre Company and Eldorado for Malthouse, and whom he’d worked with at Berlin’s Schaubuehne. He continues his New Year’s Eve story:

“And this strange thing happened. We locked in one guy. It was a cruel, childish thing to do. And it was a game first, but in the end he started crying. It was this strange thing that just erupted within us. And I was really fascinated by all these emotions that came up with the game and I thought I’d like to deal with that onstage and see what it gives. And I think what’s really great about the game is that it provides the structure, the structure of someone counting and structuring time. And then the moment of the hunt. And then in the end, you have all these people standing in a room that they changed because of their ways of hiding. And so, all those different states—I found how amazingly well that works on stage and that it really draws you in.”

In the Melbourne workshopping of what would become Moving Target, long before there were words or a script took shape, von Mayenburg explains that the actors “would play hide-and-seek for three hours. And after the first two rounds, you thought, okay, they are all the hiding spots. There are no more in the room. And then they would come up with new stuff, all the time.” In performance, the demand of playing the same game over and over and having to invent new solutions looks as exhausting as it as fascinating. Von Mayenburg says, “The exhaustion of the actors in the workshop was important. Because only after you reach this kind of emptiness of total exhaustion, can you start to invent hiding spots in an empty room.”

Von Mayenburg started writing initally, he recalls, “about disappearing children and one child who doesn’t want to come out of his hiding spot. In the end, I thought no, I want to change the perspective of the text. I want to take on the parents’ perspective. So that’s why this story of a society scared of its children emerged. I wanted to have a counterpoint to the game playing. And that’s what I wrote 2006 to 2007.”

For von Mayenburg the long time between workshopping in Melbourne and writing in Berlin and meeting with his collaborators again allowed him time to get some distance from their creation. “In August 2007, we had the games and we had the text and we were trying to put it together. For me, it somehow worked but I couldn’t really tell how. So we tried all kinds of different structures. In the end we’re not using all the text I’ve written. We cut some things. So that was last August and then we had another three weeks to put it all together.”

In the emerging play, the game became, in effect, a defence mechanism for a group of child-like adults who compulsively turn to it when in fear of the girl-child whose consciousness they imagine they inhabit, possibly as her parents. It’s a clever dramaturgical contortion, carefully structured so that the audience has to work at putting together the scenario—an apparently perverse inversion of the notion of the inner child. That flips again in a frightening and suspenseful climax.

“What you said about the audience having to work”, says von Mayenburg, “I think that’s one of my ideals. Also for myself as an audience member. I really enjoy having to fill gaps with my own fantasies, my own associations. In this play, the audience asks, Who are these people? Are they the parents of the child? All six of them? And who’s the child? But that’s something that I like, I find challenging.”

Not only is there text left over from edits in rehearsal, but many versions of the hide and seek game. “The great thing is that now because they have this background of material that we don’t use, the performers can change little things all the time. They’re really free. In the final rehearsals we could just grab things as if from a pool of ideas and say, try this again at that spot. And the performers immediately knew what it was about and they could do it. And also, they keep inventing details. And I’ve never seen that in any other production. They came up with new stuff yesterday. And I’m sure tonight [during the Adelaide Festival premiere season] will be a little bit different again.”

Just as frutiful, if doubtless challenging, was the limited number of physical tools the performers had at their disposal for improvising: their clothes, a table, a tablecloth, a long red lounge, a piece of carpet, a chair, a sleeping bag and a couple of toys. “All these things were in our rehearsal room”, explains von Mayenburg, “an old church used by Malthouse as a rehearsal space. They all belong to Malthouse, but were just there to make the place a bit more comfortable. We thought, well let’s start to use them to play hide and seek. So all the things you see on stage, they were all there, even the sleeping bag.”

I ask how von Mayenburg responded to the collaboration. “I really enjoyed it. It was somehow liberating to have all those people contributing to the process. The actors really gave a lot of input. Benedict and I talk a lot. He spends a lot of time in Berlin because he’s working there. From the very first moment we met each other we started talking intensely about theatre and how we like to do it, on an abstract level, but also very precisely and concretely when we work together on shows. I think I wouldn’t have been able to write this text just on my own. So much belongs to this process and to these long walks that Benedict and I had through Berlin talking about theatre, about the whole shape of the play, about what you see.”

Has the Moving Target experience, I ask, influenced von Mayenburg’s subsequent writing? “I’ve written one play after this and I’m just writing another one now. And I realise that I can’t just go back to those very closed, claustrophobic plays I wrote before Moving Target. I was always looking for a way out of that. Even Eldorado is a claustrophobic situation with a man being caught in his own lie. I realise that in writing those plays, one of my ideals was to create closed worlds on stage and a strict logic of character. And I always try to write characters that I would like to see or to play myself on stage. I realised that for some reason I’m missing a sense of lightness. And even though Moving Target is probably not the funniest of plays, it has a lightness of form, I think. This is something I’m looking for now.”

Working from improvisations also seems to be having an effect on how von Mayenburg sees his writing: “I wrote Moving Target in five days because I had the whole background of the workshops. I could just grab anything that came into my mind and use it for the play. I heard on the news about the child in an adventure park that had been eaten by crocodiles. I just took it because it was there, and also the whole story of a baby in the box that people mistake for a bomb. That was a story from Israel that friends told me. I could use anything that came up and it somehow fitted into the story. I think the production of Moving Target has this sense of improvisation as well. And that’s what I like about it.”

There’s a rare, centrally placed monologue in Moving Target with a much less improvisatory feel, if only in the writing, when Julie [Forsyth, the performers use their own first names] tells a story about coming across an ideal picnicking family. They have guns and knives for hunting and she’s astonished that the children don’t shoot their father or stab him. In fact she’s ashamed that her own life can’t match this peculiar ideal. Where’s that coming from, I ask von Mayenburg. He laughs and explains:

“When I wrote it, it was like a joke. If you accept that thought that kids are dangerous, it somehow subverts the whole structure of the family. A lot of plays that are written in Germany at the moment are about child abuse, about dangerous parents or the dangerous uncle and the child as a victim. Of course, in a way, the girl in Moving Target eventually becomes a victim as well. But it was very joyful to turn it around and say kids are dangerous and parents are scared. I think a lot of parents are scared of their children. You don’t know what they’re thinking, what they know and what they don’t know.”

The Marius von Mayenburg-Benedict Andrews-Malthouse collaboration on Moving Target strikes me as a potentially pivotal moment for Australian theatre, one that transcends nationalistic cultural borders. It’s certainly not unusual in Australia’s contemporary performance scene, but it’s otherwise rare enough in theatre. Von Mayenburg comments, “Some weeks ago I spoke with a French journalist. He asked me about if I liked the French theatre and what I think about French writers. It was all about comparing Germany and France as theatre countries, theatre traditions. I got really bored with it because I think I have so much in common with people who make theatre in other parts of the world—like with Benedict and also a friend of mine who’s acting and directing in Argentina and another who’s directing in France. They are much closer to what I do, what I think. They are closer friends than colleagues in Germany. And their theatre is so much closer to my ideals than some shows produced by colleagues in Germany. One of the reasons I really enjoy working with Benedict is because we don’t have to think about the national thing. When I’m here I don’t know in what kind of context this play will fall. Of course, he has seen a lot of theatre in Germany but it’s not important that it’s German… In the end, there’s a chance that this openness can become an identity as well. It’s not about losing [national] identity by opening all the gates and getting lost. You get more than you lose, I think.


See the review of Moving Target on page 10.

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 13

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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