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A few questions for… Nurkan Erpulat

INTERVIEW. Director Nurkan Erpulat goes back to Chekhov at the Maxim Gorki with a new production of "Uncle Vanya". Be sure not to miss it when it comes back May 10 and 17 with English surtitles.

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Photo by Esra Rotthoff

Nurkan Erpulat goes back to Chekhov at the Maxim Gorki with a new production of Uncle Vanya.

Erpulat, a resident director at the Gorki, took his first crack at Chekhov two years ago with a take on The Cherry Orchard that some criticised as simplistic parable – it drew parallels with Turkish guest-workers in Germany – and others as cliché-laden cabaret. (A few found it genuinely funny.) But the Turkish-born director, who first built a name for himself at Ballhaus Naunystraße, wasn’t cowed, and now he’s tackling Uncle Vanya, a tale of dashed hopes, the perpetual search for meaning and clumsy gun-slinging.

Why did you want to direct another Chekhov play? What interested you about Uncle Vanya in particular?

For me, Chekhov is one of the greatest writers of his century. He is a gift for theatre people, because his plays are about life. Of course, theatre in general is about life. But Chekhov captured how sometimes absolutely nothing happens – that life is sometimes characterised by meaningless events, by daily routines. He opens up these moments, and that interests me. In Chekhov’s plays, nothing happens in the lines, but a lot goes on in between them. What especially interests me about Uncle Vanya is the question of how people deal with the fact that they might have to change their lives. It’s an attitude that’s familiar today. The stagnation he describes is very modern.

As a director, what was your approach? As audience members, what can we expect?

I’m trying to listen between the lines. I think that’s the only approach in theatre, but it’s particularly the case for Chekhov. The audience can expect a picture of life, of a life filled with missed moments.

Some reviews of Cherry Orchard were very critical – did that affect your approach to Vanya?

Unfortunately, only a few reviews were ultimately all that critical – I’d actually expected a lot more criticism.  What we’re doing here, I think, sometimes has the quality of being done for the first time: Until recently, you didn’t see certain segments of the population onstage. Theatre supposedly holds up a mirror to society – that’s its purpose, at least that corresponds to today’s reality was, on its own, a political exercise in Cherry Orchard. But it’s not about reviews or opinions, it’s instead about bringing particular issues to the stage. It’s about the question: What kind of theatre has been made in Germany in the last 45 years? This is what we must critically engage with.

What sorts of issues have you brought to the stage here?

In Uncle Vanya, it’s about dealing with change, which includes dealing with political positions. Chekhov addresses other exciting questions, too: What is our purpose in the world? What is work, what is freedom? What am I doing to create a better world? For instance, there’s Sonya, the professor’s daughter, whose father left her behind in the village, and she sees him for the first time only after many years. That mirrors the phenomenon of today’s “Kofferkinder” [children of guest workers], who were also left behind because their parents went to work in another country. This is precisely our subject matter. 

May 10, 19:30; May 17, 18:00 | Maxim Gorki Theater, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr. (with English surtitles)