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Simon McBurney: “It’s all there, isn’t it?”

INTERVIEW: Simon McBurney, founder of London company Complicite, makes his German-language debut at the Schaubühne directing Stefan Zweig's "Beware of Pity". Dec 19 and 21: preview, Dec 23: premiere.

Image for Simon McBurney:
Photo by Eva Vermandel

With Complicite, Simon McBurney has been making award-winning, innovative, and deeply theatrical work for over two decades and going strong. His adaptation of the 1939 Stefan Zweig novel Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity) at the Schaubühne (shown without English surtitles) marks the first time he has worked with German actors in a German theatre. He speaks about it in paragraphs – not in a laboured, academic way, but in probing associations, interspersed with thoughtful silence.

Why this particular novel?

I think it’s an incredibly powerful novel. And my instinct is that it has something for here and now – it’s not obvious exactly how, which is our task to figure out through rehearsals! It’s not about here and now, but it has a resonance with it. The hinterland on which it sits, which is really feeding it, is for all time. It has to do with questions of war, with questions of empathy, with the inner workings of the psyche – Zweig was a friend of Freud’s – and the nature of male behaviour, and its capacity for destruction.

It’s about a man, a solider before World War I, who gets invited to a country house, and makes the mistake of asking the daughter of the house to dance and discovering that she is a cripple. And then trying to make up for that mistake, and trying to make up for all sorts of things. And then discovering, in his naiveté, that she has fallen in love with him. He’s horrified by this, he doesn’t know what to do, but then finds himself in a position where he realises that he wants to propose to her, and he’s made a terrible mistake.

How did you go about adapting it?

It’s a very simple plot. Well, it’s very complex, but it’s a very clear twinning of images between the girl who is physically paralysed but emotionally articulate and the man who is physically able but mentally paralysed. There’s something to do with this opposition that we’re trying to get to grips with and put on stage.

Of course, when you talk about empathy, and then this precipitation to WWI, you can’t help but think about the way we’re unable to empathise with the experience of others today. Which is why, in part, we are at constant war. Zweig was a pacifist, so another part of the ‘hinterland’ is the sense of his own disgust of war. But it’s not a direct critique of war and how disgusting it is, because Zweig looks at things completely obliquely. He’s interested in the person, not the polemic.

Right: there’s so much to the play that’s not in the foreground.

The other part of the ‘hinterland’ is the fact that Stefan Zweig was a Jew, and that his books were banned, and he spent the last part of his life exiled, and he wrote this as a refugee. There he is in London, he’s in exile. Just before the Anschluss, Kristallnacht, he’s looking out there, and he writes the most quintessential Austrian character who is then asked a question of empathy by a crippled Jewish girl. It’s all there, isn’t it?

The novel is not about the Holocaust. It has to do with the self-examination of a nation, and whether you can ever separate the person from the society in which they are embedded. Zweig didn’t know what was to come, but he felt the gathering storm and knew its origin must be somewhere deep in the intimacy of the human mind.

It sounds ambitious.

I know! I’ve chosen to do something written in the German language – not German, but Austrian – so there is a kind of provocation in what I am doing. Not everyone who comes to the Schaubühne is going to be a Stefan Zweig fan. But on the other hand I think that if we can tell the story convincingly, people will be gripped.

How has it been working in German?

Actors are actors everywhere. It’s an extraordinarily common language. They want to play, they want to perform. It might be more difficult if you were working in a German bakery, because they have very different ideas about bread…

BEWARE OF PITY Dec 19, 21-23, 25, 20:00 | Schaubühne, Kurfürstendamm 153, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz

Originally published in issue #144, December 2015.