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Everywoman: Life and death on stage

In the latest production at Schaubühne, Milo Rau and Ursina Lardi cast a dying woman. They tell us about what they learnt along the way.

Image for Everywoman: Life and death on stage

Ursina Lardi in Everywoman. Photo: Armin Smailovic

In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s famous Jedermann, a wealthy ‘Everyman’ is suddenly confronted with death, turning his eye from his worldly possessions and passions towards the eternal salvation of God. For their Everywoman, loosely based on this material, director Milo Rau and lead actress Ursina Lardi have transposed it into our current times and added a layer of “reality” by having a terminally ill woman appear alongside Lardi. The new play, which premiered in Salzburg in September, opens at Schaubühne on October 15.

For your new production, you cast a dying woman. How did you get that idea?

UL: It was clear that we wouldn’t just retell Jedermann. At first we had a different plan, though. We started researching the theme of the “global artist”, did interviews, met people, went to Brazil – and thenhad to pause this process because of Covid. This rupture led us to completely rethink and focus on the central motif of the play: A person dies. This is not a subject matter anybody really likes going into, but it became clear at some point that this was our new focus.

But how, in practical terms, did you go about finding a terminally ill person for your play?

MR: Our dramaturg Carmen Hornbostel started to call all the hospices in Berlin. We met a variety of candidates. At auditions you always notice immediately if someone is the right fit. For us, the right person didn’t come along. We felt that we didn’t really find common artistic ground with the people we met. We were already very close to giving up when we finally met Helga Bedau.

What was it exactly that felt right about her?

UL: Mrs. Bedau is a very reflective, self-determined woman who is open and unsentimental about her situation and was not afraid to share her thoughts and feelings. It was clear that we had found a real partner. She has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She had already survived her first prognosis at the time of rehearsal, and she definitely doesn’t have much time left. In the play she is present in video recordings and at one point she says that she would actually rather play Jedermann than talk about herself…

MR: What Mrs. Bedau addresses there is actually less her problem than Ursina’s who is constantly battling with the idea of ‘playing herself ’ as a professional actress.

But the question remains: Wouldn’t it have been enough to tell Mrs. Bedau’s story? Why does she have to present herself as a dying woman?

UL: She is just a few meters ahead of us, we’ll all go down the same path eventually. The fact that she is in the play, even though it’s “just on video”, makes the inevitability of death much clearer than if I were alone. It is also part of our working practice to play with realities, with the distance between me and the character I am playing; to bring reality onto the stage as the basso continuo.

MR: Yes, on the one hand that is part of our aesthetics. But it is also simply a human decision to give the theatre space to a single ‘normal’ person, to an Everywoman, and to listen to them. It may sound a bit esoteric, but maybe we’re able to defeat death in a sense. After all, death is an individual experience, but theatre creates a community of listening and speaking.

Image for Everywoman: Life and death on stage

Ursina Lardi and Helga Bedau. Photo: Marco Borrelli

Is this the salvation that Everywoman talks about in the play?

UL: Yes. We don’t have the same possibilites of salvation that Jedermann had in the 19th century, of God forgiving us from above, the angels chirping and making everything all right. We can only work with what is here.

MR: Ursina and I call the red thread of our collaboration “the heroine’s journey”, which actually has something very Catholic about it. You have to go through a lot of suffering, and in the end there is perhaps some small realisation, or a moment of tenderness, of community. But all the contradictions of life will also still be there. Utopia exists only as a small ray of hope.

Mrs. Bedau says at one point in the play that she needs money, €6000. Did she get that money from appearing in the play?

MR: Yes she did, but for legal reasons we can’t specify what she got exactly.

Is she still alive?

MR: Yes, and I hope she will still be alive for the premiere on October 15 at the Schaubühne. Afterwards we want to go to her favourite pizzeria Ali Baba on Bleibtreustraße.

UL: We very much hope that she can come to the premiere. It’s a great moment for everyone, for us, but also for the audience, when she’s on stage for the applause.