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The story of the potato

Peter Michalzik talks to Luk Perceval and Thomas Thieme about self-loathing, the Dalai Lama and Moliere and

You can be of the view that everything's going to hell in a hand basket. Ever fewer people have ever more money and ever more have less. Capital has become a given and it controls everything on the planet. And it's getting warmer. And the theatres are doing badly. You can despair, you can shrug your shoulders, you can shut your eyes, you can scream.

But you can also be of the view that we're doing far too well, that saturated people are a plague for the theatre, that we are – like in late Rome – fat, perverted and stupid and that self-absorption is the death of theatre. You can yearn for renewal. But at the same time, you recognise that you too are sitting in a luxury boat. And that's just gross. And then you start thinking about self-loathing.

Of course, you can carry on doing theatre, regardless. You can take an author – let's say Moliere, French, born in 1622 as the son of a paperhanger, hated by all of Paris, protege of the king, died in 1673 on the stage, where he had just played the "Malade imaginaire" -, you can shut yourself up in a room with a few actors for five months (yes, count them, five) and you can dig into the author, his texts and yourself. Until you're so deep that it takes a while to remember who he is and who you are. And then you can drive to Salzburg and play Moliere for five hours for relatively wealthy theatre enthusiasts: festival guests. Then, and only then, comes the question of whether you are out of touch with reality, or dumb or, even worse, apolitical.

Luk Perceval, short and thin and Thomas Thieme, tall and fat, sit in an Italian restaurant, one drinking peppermint tea, the other eating spaghetti vongole, and talk about their backs. One does yoga, the other had an operation. One is a director, the other an actor, one is Belgian from a working class family, the other German from the former East Germany. Laurel and Hardy. "That's another one we should do," says Perceval.

Several hours later, Thieme is sitting at another table and Perceval is talking about how it is with him and Thieme. In a Zen cloister, a student asks his teacher about enlightenment. "If you think of God while peeling potatoes," the master says, "that has nothing to do with enlightenment. Enlightenment is when, while peeling potatoes, you peel potatoes." Pause. "Thomas Thieme is my potato."

Thomas Thieme, Patrycia Ziolkowska in "Moliere, Eine Passion" © Matthias Horn

And somehow, the potato is what unites this world with Perceval and the theatre and Moliere and self-loathing and the luxury boat and the scream. When asked if all this stuff with spiritualism, Moliere and the five months isn't escapism, Perceval the director gives a long answer: it involves Buddhism, world peace - which begins with each one of us, (where else) - , and the Dalai Lama, who had a hard time understanding the concept of self-loathing during a visit to the USA. There was no direct translation and he simply couldn't imagine what it would be. But Perceval knows that we all understand self-loathing because we all carry it around with us, and nobody understood it better than Moliere. And when he talks about fear and fury and how this explains Moliere, Theime says, in answer to the question of escapism, one sentence: "He has me."

Thomas Thieme and Luk Perceval are a great theatre pair. Their first collaboration was with "Schlachten" (Battles), the Shakespeare marathon in Salzburg in 1999 (pictures), to which Moliere is a continuation. Thieme played Lear for Perceval, then Othello and Willy Loman. Now he's the Misanthrope, Don Juan, Tartuffe and the Miser – all Moliere's characters, plus Moliere himself, who's hidden in all these characters and he is Perceval's potato.

Thieme says he used to look for conflict. He doesn't any more, in fact he tries to avoid it. "Now I wait until it's there." It usually comes after long rehearsals, when one of them is pooped and the other can't stop spurring him on. "Sometimes I just want him to recognise that I'm finished," says Perceval, "but then he yells at me." "And then," says Thieme, "we get the cow to fly. Anyone can make a humming bird fly. But a cow: that takes practice."

"Moliere. A passion" is conceived as a trip to another world, the story of a soul. For Perceval, Moliere was a tragic figure who turned himself into in comedic poet, a laughing stock. Now he's chosen four plays which, taken together, function as an x-ray image of Moliere. "In the 'Misanthrope', he shows himself to be a hater of others and of himself. It starts with self-loathing. That's how he becomes a cynic, Don Juan. He consumes love and only love, until he's fucked himself to death, so to speak: as Moliere's self-image, very melancholic. Suicide fails, the last chance is religion. As Tartuffe, Moliere laughs at the stupidity of the world, which is so easy to manipulate. And then the miser, where Moliere paints a horrible portrait of his fear of old age. A person who only talks about money, who is suspicious and reduced to his most primitive needs - for instance, to marry a young woman. He shows an image of the artist fighting with himself on the stage, and at the same time, playing to death."

Thomas Thieme, Patrycia Ziolkowska in "Moliere, Eine Passion" © Matthias Horn

And Thomas Thieme is expected to play all that? He responds: "In Germany, Moliere doesn't get you very far, he's considered the comedy poet. But to me, he seems more serious today than everything that I've done so far, including Shakespeare. It's blacker, yuckier, more piteous. At the end, an old fart stands there with a bunch of passions rumbling around in him. He wants to jump the girl again: disgusting, touching, pathetic."

Then Perceval pipes up: "What I love about Moliere is his rage. I call it the rage of desires. Moliere presents a model for desire. We're always missing something. And we look for comfort in art and religion. But Moliere expresses it as an anger at life, at society, at himself. I often think how crazy it must have been to see him dying on the stage. He was the bull that knows he doesn't have a chance, that everyone has hunted. The Antichrist is in there. He represents something that we would like to be: audacious, direct, uncompromising. Not one woman, thousands! Until the end as miser, he's different then."

The potato disagrees. "But miserliness is also great. (Geiz ist ja auch geil: an advertising slogan for a German electronics chain - ed). As we know. Maybe I should say that on the stage: 'Leave me alone, miserliness is great.' It's true. When things are going well and I look at my bank statements, I feel fantastic."

At the beginning of his career, Moliere was the head of a travelling troupe, a slave to audiences. He belonged to a group that was pretty much his family. That's a completely different kind of theatre from Berlin's Schaubühne, where "Moliere" will open in the autumn, and from all other theatres in Germany. Moliere's theatre would have had something in common with what Perceval was doing in Belgium after he left the Theatre National. Four years of theatre without one franc of subsidy. "Of course, you develop an insane need for recognition and a rage against society. You have to beg for money, you play like a slave, you're not your own master. People here have no idea how good they've got it. I can identify with Moliere's rage. And then at some point, you get hyped and the chancellor is sitting in the first row, like the king for Moliere."

Again, Thieme can't hold back. "We're doing really well. Directors at the major theatres in Germany, Austria and Switzerland – no need to mention names – have become so powerful and arrogant over the years that you practically have to show them the toilet paper that's hung up in the toilets on the night of the performance. Is the paper comparable to the interpretation of the play? This conceitedness, this silk underwear – I actually wore invisible silk underwear there (he means the Schaubühne)! They thought it would inspire me! This underwear really is an issue, it's still in our heads."

Perceval finds it interesting that the media and audiences in Germany are interested in high culture and that theatre can no longer meet their expectations. "Stage designers keep getting cheaper, casts smaller. The resulting clash is interesting: many theatre-makers need to latch onto reality, they want to show the raw reality on the stage. They don't want to have anything to do with the narrow-minded bourgeoisie that gathers at Salzburg. There's an ever greater culture clash between artists who consider themselves part of the proletariat and..."

That's the potato's cue: "... Mr Stadelmaier of the FAZ as a mouthpiece (more). That man is one of the protagonists of a late bourgeois view of art that he wants to preserve at any cost, that he wants to hold fast in the bourgeois milieu. He'd like to have himself a nice evening. Artists like Mr Stein (more) or Mr Bondy don't want anything to do with him, but he sings such high praise of them that they can't get away. It's well known in the scene that a hymn of praise from Stadelmaier means that soon, nobody's going to be talking to you. That is the culture war."

It's the old fight between those who push the supposedly classic interpretations and theatre, that, without subversion, becomes nothing more than entertainment. Nonetheless, it seems strange that the culture war in theatre is being pegged to one critic, who stands before the theatre like the last Mohican of historism.

Perceval recalls how, when he left the Theatre National in Antwerp in 1984, everyone was in a panic over the oil crisis. "Now it's the unemployment monster, and I sense an even greater conservatism and fear among 30 year olds than back then. And unemployment is not the only threat. Neo-conservatism has practically been institutionalised. What used to be the red scare and before that the devil is, in today's world, Islam."

"We have the western world in our grip," says Thieme and wraps his hand around an imaginary neck, just as Raimund Harmstorf the sea wolf once squashed the famous potato. "You sense that in the theatre as well."


This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on July 24, 2007.

Peter Michalzik is theatre critic at Frankfurter Rundschau. More features by him here.

translation: nb - let's talk european