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Ancient themes, modern relevance

INTERVIEW! Director André Bolour and producer-performer Sara George team up to take on Aeschylus – via Charles Mee – in Big Love.

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Photo by Hernando Tascon

Director André Bolouri and producer-performer Sara George on conviction and conflict in their new production “Big Love”.

Updating and remixing the ancient Greeks for contemporary society, American playwright Charles Mee’s Big Love tells the tale of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants – brides who seek asylum abroad to avoid forced marriages at home. The relatively young, international ensemble Push Comes to Shove – begun by André Bolouri and Sara George last year and based out of the 2009-founded Actor’s Space – is presenting the German premiere of Mee’s work in a revamped edition fitting for a world still struggling with global migration.

It’s also the ensemble’s inaugural external production, introducing Berlin audiences to their blend of American and German theatrical styles.

Why did you decide to make Big Love your first production?

ANDRÉ BOULOURI: When I decided to move back to Berlin, I was very eager to have an ensemble to continue my work in English. And at some point, after looking through many options, we remembered that play, and I thought, “That’s a good ensemble play.” It gives everyone equal parts, it has a strong voice and strong writing. I think he really adds something to the original Aeschylus. Every time we work on it I feel inspired to bring in new elements and see where it actually relates to our world today.

What happens when we’re not able to communicate? It ends in destruction.

SARA GEORGE: And it exists in this space between the typical American realistic theatre and the German theatre tradition which is a little bit more abstract. It’s able to exist in both worlds at once and blur those lines, and bring together what I feel is best in both traditions: the high concept that German theatre has and the very strong acting techinique and relationships that exist on stage in the American tradition.

Mee has been an outspoken opponent of intellectual property and encourages people to remix his texts as they see fit. How did you approach that policy in this version?

AB: He strongly suggests that you change his plays. It’s called a ‘reshaping project.’ Basically, he himself takes classics and makes new plays out of them, and that’s what he asks you to do when you work with a play of his. And that’s what we did. We made a lot of changes, we brought in new material, we took what he gave as basis for the play…

SG: …moved things around, added scenes. We expanded one of the relationships to show a different aspect and side of it, because each of the characters actually stands for a certain kind of modern archetype, some belief or way of thinking. And there was one relationship that wasn’t so developed and so we thought, “What other point of view could we add to give it a more rounded perspective?”

Did it need updating in
 terms of cultural

AB: Six years ago there was 
a Bush administration, and 
[Mee] was very America-
critical. I feel a lot of
things have changed since 
then, so we changed a few 
of the texts… we didn’t say “this is America, the evil” but we made it more about what happens when power is misused and people start looking for help.

SG: Another thing that’s interesting in that aspect is that the women are escaping from Greece to Italy, and 10 years ago that would have had a different connotation. But now, it has a completely different feel and it adds a really interesting level to the story that we didn’t have to add! It just evolved. [Laughs]

And part of our rapidly increasing globalisation is an awareness of what’s happening outside one’s own borders, both positive and negative…

AB: The major question that Mee asked, and it’s even in the original Aeschylus, is: when you’re under oppression, what are your rights to defend yourself? And I think that question is still relevant, since the Egypt uprising, and with everything happening in the Middle East. And I think we as Western civilisations are really struggling to find our relationship to it. They fly their bombers to some countries but not others, why? What’s our policy? When do we engage, and when don’t we?

SG: Something I see really strongly in this piece – it’s not there so much in the writing – but as we talk about this globalisation, I see this parallel between personal relationships between two people and the relationships between countries, or even between people in one country with very strong contrasting beliefs. And what happens when we’re not able to communicate, either with our partners, or when countries aren’t able to use diplomacy? It ends in destruction in one way or another.

How does that dynamic play out in Big Love?

SG: The two main characters are so aggressive and strong – one very macho, one very pro-woman – and neither of them are willing to compromise or talk, or look at the specifics and the other people who are involved in the conflict. Because they’re so attached to their belief of what is ‘right’, neither of them will budge, and it doesn’t end well. These other couples, they probably could have found a way to relate to each other, and one of them actually does. The specifics are there for the solution but if neither party is willing to budge, then it’s not going to work!

What role do you think theatre can play in larger societal and political issues?

AB: I think my simple answer would be: if you have joy in creating something, and share that, the audience will get some of that. I don’t think the role of theatre is to teach or to lift the moral finger, but to share how you worked through these questions. And if you sincerely go through a process of discovery, you can take the audience on that journey. And if they get, after 90 minutes, a fraction of what we put in over half a year, then I would be very happy with the role that theatre plays.

SG: Theatre in the American tradition, I think, hasn’t really had a revolution since the 1960s: it hasn’t moved from realism at all. It’s just completely stuck, like: “It needs to look just like a living room, and we need running water!” But there’s something in the form itself, in the structure of performer and audience and the telling of a story: there becomes this interesting shared space and energy exchange between actor and audience, and the more they connect, the more the line really blurs. Something can be created that the audience enters into fully, as an experience; it can be crafted so specifically that they’re taken on this whirlwind of a journey. And when it’s over there’s this feeling of “What the fuck just happened?!” [Laughs].

Big Love, Jan 9-13, 16-20, 20:00 | English Theatre Berlin, Fidicinstr. 40, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke