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  • Spielerfrauen: The drama and tragedy of footballers’ wives


Spielerfrauen: The drama and tragedy of footballers’ wives

Following up on 2022's It's Britney Bitch!, Lena Brasch and Sina Martens are back with a new play examining footballers' wives.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Lena Brasch and Sina Martens are used to building off one another’s thoughts. The writer-director Brasch and actor Martens might jump in to help the other remember an exact date or the precise social media channel where a critical comment was posted, or simply to affirm a particularly perceptive comment.

The pair began their creative collaboration with 2022’s one-woman performance, It’s Britney, Bitch!, which showcased their shared ability to locate the epic in the popular – as well Martens’ great range as an actress in the role of Spears. It’s no wonder they’ve continued their creative partnership, which now turns to contemplate the complicated relationship between football and gender.

Inspired in part by the tragedy of Kasia Lenhardt, a model and the former partner of the German footballer Jérôme Boateng who committed suicide after being subject to public disparagement by Boateng, Spielerfrauen (“Players’ Wives”) is set to debut in May at the Berliner Ensemble as a two-actor performance where Martens will be joined by Gabriel Schneider on stage. The Berliner spoke with Brasch and Martens about their hopes for the piece, which will premiere just ahead of this summer’s European Championships.

How did you come to focus on football for your follow-up to It’s Britney, Bitch!

Sina Martens: So actually, we had already noted with our last work, It’s Britney, Bitch!, that in “pop culture” there were similar theatrical figures with just as universal, fundamental conflicts as, for example, Greek tragedy. And we knew that we wanted our next piece to grapple with toxic relationships.

This piece is about how these women are reported on… “the wife of Mats Hummels” or “the wife of Max Kruse”. Hardly anyone knows the name of these women

We had for a long time worked with the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp relationship and then into our hands came a newspaper article in October 2022 about the Jérôme Boateng-Kasia Lenhardt scandal. I, myself, come from a football family. My brother is an agent, and my father is a manager. I played football for a long time and am very familiar with the world. So we thought that this incident offered a great opportunity to bring together these themes – and, in particular, to focus on players’ wives.

That means we’ve been working on this now for a year and a half – and then came, of course, the case of Luis Rubiales [former president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation who was charged with sexual assault after kissing a player without her consent after winning the World Cup], which was actually both further motivation and confirmation that we were working with the right material, because it showed how deeply and strongly football is anchored in patriarchal structures. 

Photo: Makar Artemev

Lena Brasch: Exactly. And I believe that the continuity with the toxic relationship that originally inspired us – or not inspired, but rather, with which we had grappled through Amber Heard and Johnny Depp – was what does it mean to lead a relationship in public? That is to say, when the media has so much influence on the relationship or interpersonal conflict, which is then exposed?

What does that do to a relationship? What does that do to the relationship and also to the public, if the media and people have a say about it? And that’s why we also think about Spielerfrauen like this. It will have a lot to do with football, but a player’s wife can be any type of woman. It can be a football-playing woman, an actress… or in the case of Kasia Lenhardt, even the girlfriend of a footballer, who begins a career [of her own] but then is always only the woman, or former woman, of someone. 

Why do you choose pop culture as the material for your work?

SM: I find pop culture has unbelievable relevance, because it always has something to do with what’s going on right now. And there are reasons why pop culture is how it is.

There are many people who sneer at pop culture. And because of that we too were condescended [to], at the beginning, when we decided to pursue this project. There was a comment, which we’ve often cited, that we got on Facebook: “First came the proletariat, and now it’s ‘pop culture.’ We should stop funding theater.” And this is because it’s not seen as high culture.

I find this to be a big problem, because I believe theatre is a place that enables many different people to come together in a room and sit and experience, and then afterward be able to speak about what they have seen together – at least, I love it most when it does this. And pop culture also belongs to this, as do young people, who perhaps say, “Going to see a [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing play, I’m not sure about that. But that’s really interesting – I’m definitely interested in football.” So what I meant from the beginning is that there are levels, and a specific type of fundamental conflict, which also takes place in pop culture.

When we speak about ‘players’ wives’ and the stories that take place in public, there are actually very strong fundamental conflicts: this type of golden cage does not allow for equality. And we speak about certain relationships that take place publicly, about attacks, about unbelievable misuses of power up to domestic violence. And I find that good. These are very, very relevant subjects, which I think are really important to speak about on stage. 

LB: And that is also pop culture. I believe, as Sina also said, that pop culture is today’s Greek tragedy – it doesn’t matter if it’s now Amber Heard and Johnny Depp or David Beckham and Victoria Beckham or even Jérôme Boateng and Kasia Lenhardt, where the tragedy ended in the worse possible catastrophe, the suicide of Kasia Lenhardt. I believe you can well and simply summarise it as the idea that pop culture is the Greek tragedy of today: it occupies us and haunts us and is always present with us. 

What are your hopes or expectations for Spielerfrauen?

LB: I hope that it simply helps bring awareness. We don’t say in the work that we know what’s right and what’s wrong. We hope to produce consciousness of abuses and to work somehow toward an emancipatory moment, but that is not for us to decide, but rather what the people who come to see the performance do with it. That, I believe, is the motivation we have to tell this [story].

Also, when it comes to sexuality in football, a player coming out as gay only occurs at or after the end of a career. But is this still in keeping with current social developments? We want to simply provoke some reflection on this. It would be a big wish fulfilled if people were to reflect afterward on the kind of world in which we live and what they are part of and can potentiate.

SM: I would perhaps add that the premier will take place on May 9. The Euros begin in Germany in the middle of June. That means we will experience a very football-intensive summer. And there are a few things I would hope for. Lena has spoken about awareness. For me, it will be a success even if only three people who follow football come out of the piece and follow something else in the sport, namely, attending to the kind of commercialisation that the sport has experienced.

Case in point: the fan protests, which we just had in the Bundesliga, and which, happily, were successful in taking the discussion about a major potential investor in the league off the table. And, of course, this piece is about how these women are reported on, about these classic players’ women, who mostly are known only as the “the girlfriend of”. So we’re not speaking about women who have a name, outside of perhaps Victoria Beckham. All the others are “the wife of Mats Hummels” or “the wife of Max Kruse”. Hardly anyone knows the name of these women.

We knew that we wanted our next piece to grapple with toxic relationships

I would wish that after people have seen this piece, they perceive how the reporting on this is done and how patriarchal football really remains. And, also, as Lena already has said, that players only come out after their careers. We always have girlfriends sitting in the stands. There is never a player’s boyfriend, for example.  

Photo: Makar Artemev

And what is the role of theatre as an art form in this intervention in the conversation around football?

LB: I believe that theatre can [intervene] on a number of levels. Theatre is not journalism. So the headline in Der Spiegel might say [exactly] what it is. But that is not theatre. We could write a whole chapter about what theatre is. But to sum it up: theatre can be a ‘counterfactual storyteller’. It can be rubbish and it can be individual opinion. It is not only about putting facts on the table. You can pack facts in other contexts, theoretically, and through that produce awareness, or bring attention to facts.

I believe that what theatre can do and what we attempt to do with it is that we put our glasses on the audience so they can see through other eyes – how we perceive something and process it at an artistic level. And that’s not as something deeply sad, or even as a deeply sad drama. Rather, we attempt to pick up the people – I like this concept of ‘picking up’. Not because people are standing at a bus station and have to be picked up. But rather, to bring people with us and move them or somehow make them think. And that theatre can do with a mix of nonsense and fact.

SM: And play and emotions and thoughts. And space and dialogue with the public. That is actually what’s really special in theatre – that we’re live with each other at the same time in the same place. 

  • Spielerfrauen May 9, 10, 18, 19 & 20, Berliner Ensemble, German, with English surtitles on May 18