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  • Playwright Alexander Zeldin: “I’ve always been attracted to being an outsider”


Playwright Alexander Zeldin: “I’ve always been attracted to being an outsider”

FIND festival’s 2024 Artist in Focus, Alexander Zeldin talks faith, empathy and contemporary storytelling.

Alexander Zeldin, Chicago 2017. Photo: Alyssa Schukar

Alexander Zeldin speaks with an invigorating lack of irony. “I think theatre can change the world,” the acclaimed playwright and director says. “I mean, I’m not sure it has very often, but I think it can. It’s capable of really overwhelming you, changing you.”

The British-born, Paris-based Zeldin draws inspiration from the late Japanese theatremaker Yukio Ninagawa, who expressed the wish to articulate his vision of the world in his work at least once in his life. Zeldin takes Ninagawa’s principle as a model for his own evolving craft, which Berlin audiences will be able to see for themselves at Schaubühne’s FIND festival this month, where the 38-year-old Zeldin will be honoured as its Artist in Focus.

He is staging the final piece of his critically-acclaimed socio-realistic The Inequalities trilogy, titled Faith, Hope and Charity before showcasing his newest work, The Confessions, a piece that takes its shape from the life of his mother.

How would you characterise the change from The Inequalities to The Confessions? Could one say it’s a shift from more political to more personal playwriting? 

Well, there’s a line in The Confessions that was very important in the 70s: “The personal is political.” And the story of this woman from a working-class family that goes through the world trying to create herself against the structures of her time is incredibly political.

The more I work in the theatre, the more I realise that it can actually do things that we can’t do in life.

I never saw The Inequalities as political theatre; I saw them as plays that spoke about heroes and heroines of our time experiencing the conditions under which we all live, and that what they were experiencing would be a way of illuminating the collective fabric that binds us together as an audience and as a society. I also just felt like these plays were really of their time, that they were necessary at that time.

The Confessions, Photo: © Alípio Padilha, 2024 

But during Covid, in this period when we were very isolated, I felt a need to look within and to change something. I needed to kind of break with what I’d done. I needed to let go of any kind of security I had as a maker. And I found that very important, that I step up and make work in a very different way, write something very different to what I’ve done in the last years.

Now, before I did The Inequalities, I did loads of other stuff. I did choreography, performance art. I directed other people’s plays, I wrote other plays, I wrote poems, I did all sorts of things. They weren’t particularly successful. They were just early things. So I wanted to put myself at risk. I think that’s really important. To try something else and to grow as a writer. To be really honest with you, I’m really trying to improve as a writer all the time, to go further into this wonderful millennia-old tradition of telling stories, which is a real challenge to become really good at. And so, I wanted to sort of break something and start again.

Were there other texts that served as inspiration for this shift in focus?

Yeah, absolutely. In the dramatic literature, you can look at [Henrik Ibsen’s] Peer Gynt or Matthew López’s The Inheritance. But what’s interesting about López’s play is that it’s got a novel as its starting point. For me, The Confessions was a novelistic project. And so it was more novels. The work of Annie Ernaux, but also the great classics of the 19th century – Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, things like that. I think there were several inspirations.

It was a novel, but also that kind of self-writing, which is what’s been exciting in literature in the last 10 years. Édouard Louis, who you’ve seen a lot of in Berlin. And Rachel Cusk – who’s a friend of mine – who I think may be one of the most incredible writers in the English language and who’s found a new form of writing about the self.

The Confessions, Photo: © Alípio Padilha, 2024 

I felt like that was interesting to bring into theatre. So there were several different influences. But fundamentally, I’m interested in playwriting and in storytelling. I’m really interested in the rigour of what it is to create a contemporary narrative – because that’s a challenge.

Where or with what do you begin writing a play?

I can answer that quite briefly and, I hope, sincerely by saying I’m really looking for freedom. I’m looking for a space that I can be in writing-wise, where I feel I can be free. Writing a story about someone based on my mother and telling the whole arc at a moment when that person is at the end of their life felt like it was going against the current.

It was going against shame, it was going against resignation, it was going against violence. And it felt like a way of refusing something – refusing maybe her death, or refusing to ignore these kinds of lives of which we’re ignorant. And giving another view of someone that’s considered uninteresting by many people, giving them another shape, another arc – that felt like a space that was very free. 

The Confessions. Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

How do you see the relationship between theatre and “real life”?

The most basic condition of theatre is that it’s a concentration of life. In other words, it’s a space where we can feel life with an intensity that we struggle to outside of the theatre. And that’s the answer I’ve had for a while.

The more I work in the theatre, the more I realise that it can actually do things that we can’t do in life, like help us see the dead. [Harold] Pinter said it helps us go behind the mirror and not just show us what’s in front of us but behind it. So, the more I think about the origins of the theatre, which is always the place that you need to come back to, the more you realise that the theatre was a space for showing ghosts or showing the dead or showing gods – for showing the natural forces of life.

Is it important to your art to feel a distance from your surroundings?

It’s interesting, because I think that the shift for me came when I went back to England in 2010 – I was 26, 27, and I spent the best part of eight or nine years in London, and that’s when I really made the work that has toured. So I’ve always felt that the richness of being – and this is partly because of my heritage, right?

The most basic condition of theatre is that it’s a concentration of life.

My father was born into a family that had to leave Russia, and he was born in Palestine in 1930. My mum is Australian. And I went to a French school, so I always felt that the boundaries of nationality and, to some extent, the constrictions of social class were a construct, which is the most important thing in England. I was able to experience these a little bit from outside. I say a little bit because, of course, I was inside it, one way or another.  As is the way, I guess, that both capitalism and social structures work. So, I think I’ve always been attracted to being an outsider in some way.

The Confessions, Photo: © Alípio Padilha, 2024 

Just temperamentally. I was in Paris this morning, and I always slightly feel like I’m visiting here, even though I live here. And that’s partly because I don’t know that many people. But that’s the choice I’ve made in my life to try and create the conditions where I can be in a rich place to observe and listen to what’s inside me and what I’m experiencing. And travelling is part of that. I think D.H. Lawrence said something somewhere about transience being important for artists. And I think he was right.

What is theatre to you?

That’s like saying, “What is love?” You know, in our lives, we have many different kinds of love. And what theatre is is a mystery. It’s a constant question that we have to wake up and ask ourselves every day. We should be in front of it with astonishment, astonishment and curiosity. I try my best to create plays where that is possible. And it’s a constant question. You know, every day you wake up and you say, “What is the need for theatre?” And if a theatre artist doesn’t ask that question, you can feel it in the first three minutes of the performance.

Beyond Caring will be on at the Schaubühne at the end of April. Photo: © Gianmarco Bresadola, 2022 

When you go to the performance, and you sense this person has asked this question from a very deep place within themselves, there’s an immediate resonance that comes off the stage that we’re in the presence of something that’s living. And in the theatre, because it’s live, it’s the tightrope walk of life. As soon as you think too much, or you see yourself walking on the tightrope, you fall off.

So in a way, the experience of going to the theatre is centred around one very basic question, which is, “Do I believe?” And inside this question is my capacity to have faith, my capacity to feel empathy, my capacity to think, but, above all, my capacity to see. And seeing is not just looking. It’s seeing what’s there in our collective life. 

  • FIND Festival, Schaubühne, Apr 18-28. Zeldin’s play Beyond Caring will be on at the Schaubühne on the 27th and the 28th of April, you can buy tickets here.