Originally written for The Stage.
Britain and Germany have never felt closer. At least, British and German theatre cultures – often defined as polar opposites – are increasingly moving towards one another. Spurred on by regular visits from German directors such as Thomas Ostermeier and productions including Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, young British theatre-makers are increasingly fascinated by working practices and aesthetics borrowed from the continent, while there’s evidence of German theatres hankering after Britain’s talent for developing new plays.
Walter Meierjohann represents this collision of cultures. Born in Amsterdam to German parents, the director trained in Berlin and established his career in Germany, but for the last few years he has been gradually establishing himself on the British theatre scene. “Obviously they are very different,” he says of British and German theatre cultures. “The playwright in this country is completely number one, whereas in Germany it’s the director who is more in the lead.”
It was this director-led theatre on which Meierjohann was raised. Training for four years at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin, his teachers were heavily inspired by Brecht and the course was theoretical in its underpinning. “We had to write concepts,” Meierjohann explains. “Constantly from year one we had to do something with a text.” His understanding of theatre, as a result, was as “a political tool for talking about the time we live in” – a tool wielded by the director.
“I was very lucky to have that training,” Meierjohann says, describing it as “really thorough”, but he always felt that there was “something lacking” in this approach. “Sometimes I got a bit wary of the word ‘concept’,” he continues. “When I started really properly directing I thought, I’ve got my concept, but actually I want to work with actors on the text. You have to leave space.”
Starting his career in a small town in the east of the country, Meierjohann went on to direct classics by the likes of Friedrich Schiller and Arthur Miller at theatres across Germany, as well as working on devised commissions at the Sophiensaele and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. He was invited to direct Peter Stein’s ensemble in 2002, and between 2004 and 2005 he worked with the State Theatre of Dresden as the founder and artistic director of international new writing theatre Neubau.
After moving to London, Meierjohann wrote to five theatres in the city introducing himself and requesting a meeting. He received just one reply, from David Lan at the Young Vic. A meeting over coffee turned into “a two-hour conversation about plays and projects” and quickly led to Meierjohann being offered the role of associate director at the Young Vic. This was in 2007, and for the next seven years Meierjohann split his time and work between London and Germany, with inevitable effects on his approach as a director.
“Over the years I haven’t dropped the conceptual approach, but I’ve tried to be much more flexible,” Meierjohann tells me. This shift has been influenced by working with British actors, whose approach is appealing to the director. “There is more of an openness in the UK,” he explains, “both from actors and also from directors, to try things out without being judgemental about it.”
Equally, though, Meierjohann was interested in bringing a continental influence to the Young Vic. Noting both the absence of formal training for directors and less of an emphasis on the visual, he spent much of his time running workshops for young directors and bringing in designers from mainland Europe.
“My dream was to create a fusion between English theatre and continental or German theatre,” he says. “What I mean by that is a strong emphasis on great actors here – who move you, which is very different to German actors – but then also make it a bit more director-led, a bit more visual.”
Meierjohann has also observed the closing of the gap between British and German theatre in recent years. “It seems to me like England is moving more into the German way of more emphasis on directors,” he suggests, “and I think in Germany now actually people are saying ‘we want to get the playwrights in again’.” Change, however, comes down to more than creative appetite. “You can’t change the culture overnight,” Meierjohann cautions. “The UK has fantastic writers and that’s a cultural thing. The whole emphasis on language will always remain.”
Things are shifting, though, especially at theatres such as the Young Vic, where Meierjohann quickly felt at home. “I trained academically in Berlin, but I felt like my theatre school in the UK was the Young Vic,” he says. He calls Lan “a hugely inspirational man” and found that, as outsiders to British theatre, they had an immediate affinity. “Maybe that was a meeting point: we weren’t part of the British culture originally.”
Meierjohann hopes to bring some of the international spirit of the Young Vic to his latest role as artistic director of theatre at Manchester venue Home. Formed from the merger of Cornerhouse and Manchester’s Library Theatre Company, Home is a new international arts centre in the city that will be a home for contemporary visual art, film and theatre. After a site-specific season last year, which included Meierjohann’s promenade production of Romeo and Juliet at Manchester’s Victoria Baths, the director is now preparing to open his first season in the new, purpose-built venue.
Meierjohann offers the example of The Funfair, opening at the theatre this month, as an ideal example of his approach to programming. The play, which will be directed by Meierjohann, is a modern European classic written by Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath and adapted by Simon Stephens, who has shifted the drama to Manchester. “What I’m trying to introduce here is plays which have a great message, are very bold, but also talk about Manchester,” Meierjohann explains. “We’re not doing kitchen sink; it’s moving away from naturalism and realism. It’s bold, it’s classical, and it sends out a clear message that we’re working with one of the greatest UK writers at the moment, but with a strong director’s emphasis as well.”
Similar thinking can be seen throughout Meierjohann’s first season. Before The Funfair, the arrival of Hofesh Shechter in the building blurs the boundaries between theatre and dance, while visiting productions from the likes of Kneehigh and 1927 showcase different forms of storytelling on stage, often with continental influences. There’s also a revival of Meierjohann’s world-touring production of Kafka’s Monkey, starring Kathryn Hunter, and the UK premiere of Philippe Quesne’s La Melancolie des Dragons. On the whole, the programme sends “a clear signal that we’re doing things differently here”.
Meierjohann is particularly keen to throw off the “regional theatre” label. “Of course we are a regional theatre because we’re in Manchester, we’re not in London, but I think we can create something here which has that international appeal as well.” While insisting that “a theatre is for the community which you work in”, he is keen for Manchester to become a “second London”, with Home at the forefront of a burgeoning cultural scene.
“The aim is basically to say we’ve got stories from all around the world in our building and we want to talk to an audience who are interested in this,” says Meierjohann, putting an emphasis once again on the international, as well as on making the venue a welcoming – and exciting – place for Manchester audiences. “I think Home, if it all works out, could be a really sexy place.”