Gripping narratives, unexpected plot twists and dramatic scores: there certainly is a cinematic quality to Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s theatrical work. It’s a style that twice made the 40-year-old Belgian director the darling of the Festival d’Avignon with Tristesses (2016) and Arctique (2018) – both of which were invited to the Schaubühne’s FIND Festival. Now, Vandalem brings her signature blend of thrilling storylines and dark humour back to Berlin with Die Anderen, her first in-house production for the City West’s theatre.
Your plays have plot-heavy narratives full of twists, something you rarely see in post-dramatic German mainstream theatre. What draws you to fiction?
Fiction is very important to me – it’s the basis of my work and it’s the only way for me to escape from this reality we’re all too often stuck in. Of course, issues based in reality are my starting point, but theatre has to offer us a possibility to remove ourselves from this reality to be able to reflect on it.
And crime thrillers are your genre of choice for that?
Yes, crime intrigues offer a good opportunity to delve deep into characters who are searching for a truth or the resolution of something. It always starts with an event that the character has to understand. Why are they in this situation and how can they escape? And most of the time they die.
Your last two productions were set in Greenland and Denmark. Do you have a soft spot for Nordic noir?
I set Tristesses in Denmark because it is politically very interesting. Of course, I was writing about the political situation in Europe as a whole, where the support for far-right parties is growing. But Denmark both elected an extreme-right party into government and at the same time topped a poll of the happiest people in Europe for the third time running. I wanted to explore this contradiction, this desire for keeping foreigners out of their happiness. But I wouldn’t say I set them in Scandinavia because they are thrillers. Die Anderen could take place in Germany for example, but also anywhere else in central Europe.
Tristesses is set to the backdrop of a far-right resurgence and Arctique plays out among the melting ice caps caused by the climate catastrophe. Is there a similar political dimension to Die Anderen?
The play is about a foreigner arriving in a village in the last country in Europe to stop granting asylum. We have refugees escaping from a raging fire in the South and migrating North but they are no longer allowed to stay in this country. Meanwhile, it’s raining all the time. So there’s also the question of climate change. The context of the play is a metaphor for our situation, a fable. It’s like looking at Europe through a magnifying glass. Refugees are fleeing to Europe due to political or economic issues and it seems like we don’t know how to behave. What does this say about us? It doesn’t tell me anything about those fleeing but it does reveal a lot about ourselves and that kind of barbarism that leads to exclusion. Who are the ‘others’? Are we in fact the ‘others’? This is what I wanted to explore.
The story of a ‘foreigner’ arriving in a village that has a dark secret is almost a cliché in modern film. Did you have any particular influences?
On the very first day of production, I said: I don’t want to do Dogville. But I think we have managed to escape from that reference quite naturally. We have been strongly influenced by horror film though. It’s a genre that you don’t see in theatre that often.
Despite the macabre undertones of your productions, they’re also funny. What role does humour play?
Humour is essential. It’s the only way I can do my work because it’s the only way I can live my life. I need to laugh a certain amount every day. And the deeper I go into tragedies or the darker side of life, the more humour comes out of these situations. I always start writing a play saying, “this time I’m going to write a comedy.” But then it ends up becoming a thriller or a horror story.
Die Anderen | Schaubühne, Wilmersdorf. Nov 28-29, 20:00.