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The lone drummer boy: Nico Holonics

INTERVIEW! German actor Nico Holonics on playing "The Tin Drum" alone on stage, in English. Catch it at Berliner Ensemble on June 20, 19:30.

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Photo by Birgit Hupfeld

German actor Nico Holonics on playing “The Tin Drum” alone on stage, in English.

Holonics, 34, first looks very serious. And then he smiles – a big, warm, goofy gap-toothed smile – and you see it: Oskar Matzerath. The protagonist of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum is a kind of reverse Benjamin Button – born with the mind of an adult, he refuses to grow older, screaming and drumming incessantly on a tin drum as World War II rages around him. Holonics has been telling the story alone on the German stage for four years now. In June, he performs the monologue for the first time in English at the Berliner Ensemble.

Why an English-language version?

[Berliner Ensemble intendent] Oliver Reese asked me to do it as a monologue in 2014 when the Russian director who was supposed to do an ensemble version became ill during the rehearsals. We had like 55 shows in Frankfurt before coming to the BE, and then I wanted a new challenge. I have always been jealous of opera singers, who can go to New York, to the Met, and do their Traviata there, and then to Milan – I wanted to try that, have a version that works on international stages. And this piece is my baby, you know? In Munich I played Richard III in my twenties and Oskar Matzerath is the role of my thirties. I wanted to make it bigger and not just stay in Berlin, or go to Vienna.

Have you noticed a difference between audiences in Frankfurt and in Berlin?

In Frankfurt at a certain point I knew what my audience was. And here in Berlin it’s changing every evening. In the first half hour they are often very distant. But then the ice breaks, and beneath it there’s much more going on. And in the end it’s a standing ovation. You have to gain their trust again every night. You have to tell it all again. The first line of the play is “How shall I begin?” and it’s also a question for the actor himself. How shall I begin this show? Two hours alone on the stage, it’s claustrophobic. It goes very fast and there is no one to help you out.

What is your relationship like with Oskar?

It’s a feast for an actor, to play such a prismatic person. He is so sad and also so offensively abysmal. I’m thinking of the horrible sex scene with the Brausepulver – that is very hard, physically. It’s like a whole life condensed into two hours. Three or four days after the show I still feel it in my body.

That’s the alone-on-stage effect, right?

Yes, you can’t fake it. And you can’t fake it for two hours. Maybe in another show, you can say to yourself, “I’ll phone it in for one scene, I’m not really feeling it.” But here, no. “Show your wounds,” Joseph Beuys demanded, and Oliver Reese said it to me in rehearsals – the performance is completely open, except that I need to show the woundedness of this boy.

Both Tin Drum the novel and the film are quite classic! Was that intimidating?

No, not at all. The very first time I read the novel was during those rehearsals in 2014. We actually met Grass in his house near Lübeck. He was really friendly, really curious. He was surprised that no one before us had had the idea to do it as a monologue. At one point I was alone with Grass in his garden, for three or five minutes, in silence. And Grass, who was very small, smoking a pipe, said to me, “I am so proud that a young actor like you loves my text so much that he is learning it by heart.” That touched me and remains with me to this day. He wrote novels: probably no one had memorised his texts before.

And now you are learning it all again in English.

Yes! “I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is complete at birth and thereafter only to be confirmed.” The language is so perfect!

The Tin Drum Jun 20, 19:30 Berliner Ensemble, Mitte