Staging Germanness in Contemporary British Theatre

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This project looks at how the United Kingdom, through performance and its theatrical institutions, constructs an image of German theatrical culture in the contemporary context. I argue that Anglo-German theatrical exchange is fraught with artistic, aesthetic, and critical tensions, and seek to ask where in the UK German theatrical culture can feel at home, as well as what types of spaces have been, or are being formed to establish intercultural and transnational links between Britain and Germany. This work connects institutional frameworks, theatre, and performance to questions of national identity and interculturalism in order to ask how Germanness is constructed and conceived of outside of Germany. The thesis introduces three case studies performed in the UK in the post-Brexit context to explore these questions, focusing on travelling texts, travelling productions, and travelling practitioners.

In each case study, I focus on the institutional dramaturgy of each production, considering how institutions framed these productions through marketing, the theatre’s programming, and other institutional contexts. Together with this, I use performance analysis to explore how Germanness, or aspects of German-language culture, history, and politics, are represented on stage. As a means of expanding on this analysis of institutional dramaturgy, I make use of it in combination with Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital as a way of understanding the perceived value, means and effects of Anglo-German theatrical exchange in a UK context. I explore which German texts, productions, or artists have cultural capital in Britain, and how this intrinsic value is accumulated, attributed and marketed. In order to support an understanding of individual practitioners’ roles in Anglo-German cultural production, in my final chapter, I make use of qualitative interviews with German costume, lighting and set designers working in the UK. This provides crucial context on the material conditions of Anglo-German theatrical exchange and allows me to understand how the practitioners themselves position themselves within this cross-cultural network.

My first chapter examines Jack Thorne’s 2017 adaptation of Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, performed at the Old Vic Theatre, and Simon Stephens’ adaptation of The Threepenny Opera (2016) by Bertolt Brecht, which was performed at the Royal National Theatre. Given the significant role translation has played in the development of the presence of German theatre in the UK, these serve as examples of how British theatre practitioners and institutions frame and utilise German texts and playwrights to construct an image of German (theatrical) culture in Britain. As two playwrights well-known in a contemporary context for their commitment to political theatre, Brecht and Büchner seem, on the surface, to offer British practitioners a platform to address contemporary political issues. This chapter explores how both theatres thus make use of German theatrical culture to address issues surrounding cultural, class, and racial diversity within the UK context. Whilst theatre in translation can be seen as a bridge between different national cultures, I will explore how both these productions and their host institutions utilise a combination of domestication and foreignizing strategies that highlight, and indeed propagate, divisions within, and in between, British and German (theatrical) cultures (cf. Venuti).

In my second chapter I consider two directors whose work crosses Anglo-German borders: Katie Mitchell and Thomas Ostermeier. Ostermeier’s production of Richard III was produced by the Schaubühne in Berlin and has toured internationally since 2015. This will be addressed along with Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer (Ophelia’s Room; 2016), a co-production between the Schaubühne and Royal Court Theatre in London. I view Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer as an Anglo-German ‘contact zone’, and I am interested here in how theatrical practices from different theatrical and national cultures can come into contact with each in performance. I examine how Ophelias Zimmer provides space for Mitchell to “interweave” performance traditions typically associated with German theatrical culture into her theatre to highlight the feminist message in her production, drawing together gender and Germanness in intriguing ways. The production engages with elements of both British and German theatrical cultures and, I argue, critically re-assesses Ostermeier’s approach to Shakespeare in performance. In contrast to the enclosed, claustrophobic on-stage space in Ophelias Zimmer, Ostermeier constructed his own Globe theatre space for his production of Richard III., a scenographic choice which toured with the production to London’s Barbican Theatre in 2017, in order to facilitate the director’s brand of performance that prioritises easy exchange between spectator and performer. This chapter ultimately argues that Mitchell performs back this aspect of Ostermeier’s work – the mobile, maverick male actor – to question both a gendered imbalance in Anglo-German performance, as well as Shakespeare in performance in the UK.

My final chapter takes the binary frequently constructed in the British context between innovative, non-naturalistic German theatre design and a more placid, “realistic” British tradition as a provocation to explore the work of German designers working in the UK, and to consider to what extent these designers can be seen as embodying, or complicating, an idea of a German theatre design aesthetic. This chapter asks: how do theatres and practitioners work together to facilitate Anglo-German theatrical exchange in post-Brexit Britain? In what sense can Germanness be manifested in stage design? To answer these questions, I consider Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream(Young Vic, 2017) and his collaborative work with German designer Johannes Schütz, as well as German-born designer Hildegard Bechtler’s work with British director Robert Icke on his 2019 production The Doctor, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi. Here, I will be narrowing the analytical lens to consider Bechtler and Schütz’s design work in particular and how this affects the meaning-making of each production. These productions provoke concerns about how Anglo-German cultural difference can be incorporated both on stage and off. Furthermore, these case studies reveal how debates about identity politics and the role of diversity within theatrical institutions and transnational theatrical networks comes into contact with Anglo-German theatrical exchange in the UK.

My conclusion argues that German theatrical culture is imbued, through theatrical framing, with high levels of cultural capital in the UK, but this does not necessarily transfer into economic capital. I view the travelling texts as creating borders, rather than building bridges between the two nations here, establishing aesthetic divisions along national lines. However, I also argue that German theatrical culture becomes a conduit for exploring inequalities and divisions between cultures located within the UK, whereby techniques and traditions offered by German theatrical culture become the means of critiquing these issues.

Date of Award1 Jul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorBen Schofield (Supervisor) & Lizzie Stewart (Supervisor)

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