(Simon McBurney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/24.)
“I am mainly used to Germans telling me what to do … So how does it feel to be welcomed with such warmth in France?”
François Hollande leans forward for an answer. Thomas Ostermeier stoops over his plate. He is a big man, Ostermeier: 6ft 4in. For a moment he looks uncharacteristically vulnerable.
“Not every German is like Angela Merkel.”
Hollande roars with laughter. The table relaxes. It is only weeks since his election. He is optimistic, razor sharp and extremely witty. Together with the artistic directors of the 2012 Avignon festival and other assorted French directors, Ostermeier and I – the only two foreign directors at the festival – have been summoned to a dinner while he makes his first official visit to the city.
A few days earlier, at the climax of the opening night of Ostermeier’s remarkable production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a harsher voice screams from the audience: “What is a German doing telling us how to think about our lives, when you think what you did here, or have you forgotten?!”
This would be somewhat alarming in the middle of a normal production, but for Ostermeier and his team it’s meat and drink. Dismantling the barrier between audience and the stage in the fourth act, they switch the play from a stage-bound drama into a public referendum on the current state of political and social culture – mayhem breaks out in the audience.