Theatre legend Achim Freyer on learning from Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble’s conservatism and why he’d rather be painting.
He studied theatre with Bertolt Brecht himself; he’s directed operas and designed theatre sets on the world’s finest stages almost non-stop for over six decades; yes, that includes directing Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Los Angeles Opera. At 83, Freyer has certainly earned his retirement. But more than 40 years after their first Kleist production together in Stuttgart, his old friend Claus Peymann called him up to collaborate on one final premiere at the Berliner Ensemble. Who could say no?
What’s the relationship between your paintings and theatre work?
There’s no relationship. It’s completely schizophrenic. When I am in the theatre, I miss painting. When I am painting, I feel very nervous and hate the theatre. Theater is a creative exchange of thoughts; with painting you must be alone, you have no help. But when you’re done, the painting has to be like a production: movement, time, space, content. It’s a still but wild process.
You’ve had such a long and varied theatre career. Is there a through-line?
For me, it’s language – and by that, I don’t mean text, but rather theatrical language. Visual language is how we understand and draw nearer to each other. Language can wake stones. In the theatre, each gesture, each way of speaking, each colour, each position in space, each light – each change is language: to say something by putting these elements together. Otherwise it’s just formalism, and it’s stupid and boring.
Do you think of yourself as a provocateur?
I’ve heard that word used about Claus Peymann. It’s not our intent to provoke: it’s boring. But we must remorselessly try to say how it is, how it’s going. I think lies, kitsch, unreason, provocation and chaos are elements every artist needs. But as an artistic director, you can’t have them. I think Peymann is in a bit of a bind: slowly, Peymann the artistic director is edging out Peymann the director. There’s all kinds of pressure – including from the audience, who love the text, who expect some peaceful classical theatre. They may have become a bit conservative. But I’ve seen some wonderful things here at the Berliner Ensemble. Robert Wilson’s Three-Penny Opera – I told him, “You’re truly continuing the work of Brecht.”
What was it like to be one of Brecht’s students?
This was in 1953, 54, 55. I listened like a little mouse. I remember when an actor made a mistake or something like that, one of the assistants said, “That’s wrong!” And Brecht looked, and said, “The wrong thing is the only thing that is right. Everything else is wrong.” Observations like this made a lasting impression, though I didn’t know it at the time. When I went to do The Good Person of Szechwan at the Volksbühne, long after Brecht had died, I gave a long speech to the actors about why the set and costumes were the way they were based on the script. My wife was studying stage design at the time, and she later read me some of Brecht’s theoretical texts – I had never read them – and they were exactly what I had said to the actors earlier that day. This is how deeply my work with him affected me, that I could quote sentences from his work without having read them. So you should be careful whom you follow, with whom you spend your time, because it all affects you. You draw a caricature once and you’re a caricaturist forever.