A new production of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers premiered on Thursday at the Reduta Theatre in Brno. Directed by Thomas Zielinski, the production crosses 18th century Sturm und Drang with Quentin Tarantino – updating the Romantic period classic to a contemporary setting.
“It was my idea which is unusual because usually the theatre dramaturg will choose the play and commission you as a freelance director to do it. But in this case, I was given a choice and because I am German/Czech I very much like Schiller so I chose this.”
The Robbers has been described as a quintessential example of Sturm und Drang in which raw emotion and violence are strong elements. Why were those elements so central in the movement?
“It has to do with the time Friedrich Schiller lived: a period of deep feudalism in Europe and Schiller, how lived in Mannheim, was under pressure from some duke. He was in opposition and that is why he wrote The Robbers. It is full of real violence and revolution against what he called ‘the darkness’ of Germany and central Europe. He said the light of the West was needed, meaning the French Revolution, and he was even invited by Danton himself to the convent in Paris to speak there, which was a huge privilege. That is why it is full of violence: he says, in a way like Sartre, violence is not a solution but sometimes it is needed.
“As for the emotions: it was the period of Romanticism and Schiller was also only 23 when he wrote the play. So he was full of youthful, even naïve ideas and powerful emotions. At the same time, in the play he let the main princes be killed by the main character. It is a weird combination, actually. On the one hand, it is full of love bust also real hard and bizarre violence.”
You said you are half-German and that Schiller holds a special place for you: is he still widely-read in Germany? I ask because in Canada or the US Sturm und Drang may be more connected to something like a Rammstein concert for some than the original…
“He is, you have to learn it at school. Everybody knows Schiller’s poem Das Lied von der Glocke. Simply put he is part of the canon in German literature, like Goethe and The Robbers is there like Faust and is performed a lot. In the Czech Republic, he is not performed so often and when he is, it is later work like Don Carlos or Mary Stuart.”
Czech TV described your production as Schiller ‘cut’ with Tarantino: is that a fair description?
“It is. I am a fab of action movies – I love them – and of course I like movies like Pulp Fiction, a classic today. I also like Rammstein and in our play, for example, we have a guitar player onstage playing punk rock music. In the play there are a lot of weapons and blood and the story is told in chapters like in a film by Tarantino. His work is an inspiration.”
In general, has the use of filmic elements become more common in theatre over the last ten years?
“I would say so. We are more used to watching to listening: in Shakespeare’s time we used to absorb 90 percent of information in a play by the ear, but that has changed to 90 percent visual today. We live in a visual world and to get young people into the theatre, we can use some filmic methods on stage. Why not? For me, it’s a question of style and grace and if you use it help the play, I think it is perfectly alright.”
“The most obvious is that the play is not set in the 18th century but in the present day: 2014. So… modern people using modern weapons like handguns instead of foils. The stage design is minimal, with contrasts and about 26 boxing body bags hanging down. The sandbags are used to represent a forest, because in the play the characters go into illegality in the forest. We use these sandbags to also evoke the testosterone which man are used to relying on when they need to resolve conflict. The boxing bags also, at one point represent a palace with all the straight lines. We also have a modern light design.”
Let me ask you about the actors and the two lead roles, the two brothers who go against each other: how did they approach the characters?
“It was a pleasure to work with them because they are both very good actors but both had a different approach. The bad guy, who is Franz – played by Martin Siničák – put it this way, the villain is always easier to play. It’s pleasure for an actor to be really, really bad on stage. He is active and really fast, too fast for the world, really, and that was his approach. Karl, played by Petr Halberstadt, is really much more complicated. Karl is a mixture of Hamlet and Ferdinand, a naïve figure, and he is supposed to be the good guy but he also goes deeply into a dark inner world. You can’t play it black & white.
“Franz is really Richard III: Schiller himself said in the preface that Richard III from Shakespeare was the inspiration. Karl is much more complicated but we worked on it and last week it clicked and he has it.”
We spoke about the inspiration that film can have for theatre and that you are a fan of action films. It strikes me with all the spectacle in film these days, action films might do well to go back and recapture a bit of depth from theatre. What’s your view?
“I agree. I am a fan of action movies when they are good, of course. Not B or C movies where there is just a lot of shooting and dead bodies. The thing is we are still telling stories as the Greeks did in Antiquity which is the paradigm Hollywood still uses. Even an action movie can have substance and can tell a big story and something interesting about the world we lived in. Not only shooting everything in sight.”