Anarchy comes to the aisles of the Grand Opera House
The director of a stunning Belfast bound theatre production talks to Grania McFadden
Anarchy in the Grand Opera House? It's just possible, as the ornate old lady in Great Victoria Street is certainly in for a shock when Thomas Ostermeier's Schaubuhne Berlin theatre company arrives later this month.
For the audience has a key role to play in the drama – and is invited to shout out its views about anything from politics to global warming at a crucial moment in the play.
Ostermeier, one of the hippest and most provocative directors working today, is bringing his production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People to town as part of this year's Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's.
The story centres on a doctor who discovers that the water in the local spa is contaminated, and whose friends and neighbours persuade him not to blow the whistle on news which could affect their town.
But the plot is a springboard for much bigger issues, such as whether our entire political system is broken and why we meekly hand over power to others, who then fail to represent our wishes.
At one point, Ostermeier's characters ask the audience what it thinks ... and that's where the seeds of anarchy are sown.
The show played in London's Barbican Theatre last week, where people were quick to put their views across – for higher taxes; a fairer media, better politicians.
"London is ruled by a buffoon," shouted someone. "That's bloody patronising," someone else retorted.
Ostermeier says the potential for chaos is an integral part of the show, but adds: "I don't have any interest or want the audience to interact. If it happens, it's nice. But we can go on without them interacting – we just give them the opportunity.
"In some places we go, they almost don't want to stop the discussion, and this is our dream – that one day there will be so much discussion in the audience that we can disappear, and they realise ... wasn't there a stage show?"
An Enemy of the People arrives hot from a run in Russia, and will be on the road to India and China next year.
It's played in Ramallah and Seoul, Sarajevo and New York. Such is the demand from audiences, that Ostermeier can't manage to schedule in all the countries desperate to see the show. But he's made time for Belfast.
It'll be his first visit to Northern Ireland, and he's excited at the idea of coming here.
"Everywhere I go, people tell me, 'Our town is the perfect spot for this play', so probably you'll tell me the same now concerning your political situation.
"I'm really curious to go to Belfast to learn more. My favourite book is Eureka Street, I really loved that book, and it gave me a closer insight into your town."
Robert McLiam Wilson's novel about the city (in which 'the stories are jumbled and jangled. The narratives meet. They clash, they converge or convert') offers a thoughtful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek view of life here during the Troubles.
Whether Belfast really is as wise-cracking and radical as Ostermeier believes is open to debate, though.
What's not up for question is our disaffection with the political process here, and the play rolls into town as our politicians are once again preparing for talks about picking a path through the past to the future.
And it may prompt us to ask whether democracy for the people by the people still holds true in this corner of the West.
There's no question that the production is a timely one. The show had been on the road for a year when whistleblower Edward Snowden hit the headlines, and conversation turned to the rights of the individual versus those of the community. Dr Stockman's story became a play for today.
Ostermeier has helped it on its way, junking much of Ibsen's original text and shifting the action to present-day Germany. His doctor is a hip young dad, living with his wife and child in a boho apartment, littered with friends on electric guitars, pots of pasta and bottles of red wine.
It's a colour supplement view of successful young professionals today – too hip to grow old, too old to evade responsibility.
"These people, they're like my friends, myself. All of us these days are adults refusing to get older. I wanted to talk about the failure of our generation to execute political ideals and to show the tension between individual responsibility, financial responsibility and social responsibility."
Ostermeier grew up in the state of Bavaria, "pretty on the outside and not the inside. There's never been a social democratic government there, so it's an incredibly conservative reactionary part of the world". After training in East Berlin he headed to the west when the Wall came down, and this move – both physically and intellectually – informs much of his work today.
An Enemy of the People examines the way we run the world. The production is in German, but snappy surtitles overcome the language barrier.
The inclusion of music (David Bowie's Changes, Nico's These Days, an ironic version of Eye of the Tiger, which are all performed by the cast) set this show in the here and now, wherever in the world that may be.
"The play is a tragedy," he says. "The question is, can you really vote if you're not fully informed? I'm just raising this question – is this democracy we're living in? How many other people still believe in this system?
"We live in a system where we kind of gave the responsibility to a limited group of people to do the job – this idea of representation. There's a feeling that this is probably a dead end: we are facing the limits of our system.
"This play raises questions I'm asking myself." And questions we, as the audience, get to ask as well. Indeed, it's this sense of misrule which propels the play towards its end.
"Usually I am very much controlling every moment in the show – everything is very composed, there's nothing left to chance or accident," says Ostermeier.
"I wanted to take the risk of having a moment of complete anarchy and leave it to the audience and the improvisational skills of the actor. I'm always telling the actors to let the audience have a chance to talk to itself. It's exciting."
It's a dramatic illustration of how facts and ethics are subsumed by capitalism and commercialisation.
Ostermeier shows he's up to the challenge. Whether Belfast is, remains to be seen.
- An Enemy of the People is running at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from October 23-25. For details on this and other events in the Belfast Festival programme, visit www.belfastfestival.com