How much do you know about German Expressionism?
My vague understanding of the movement, which reached its peak in the 1920s, are consigned to the hazy memories of my university days, sandwiched between the invention of Spam and baked bean pasta and thinking the 15th tequila was a good idea.
The same, minus the pasta and the drinking, possibly, can be said of director Melly Still, the daring theatremaker who is picking up Georg Kaiser’s rarely staged – in London anyway – From Morning To Midnight and presenting it for modern UK audiences.
The more that she and her star Adam Godley – the incredible actor whose performances in the capital include Rain Man, The Pillowman and Paul – discuss the tale of a bank clerk who breaks free from his humdrum life to explore all that life has to offer, the more the word challenge makes itself increasingly prominent in my consciousness.
The greater the challenge, of course, the greater the reward. If the potential displayed by the vast rehearsal room at the Jerwood Space is anything to go by, that reward could be one of the year’s under the radar hits.
Here’s what the creative duo told us:
How would you describe From Morning To Midnight?
Godley: It’s a sort of phantasmagoria…
Still: It is so many different things, and actually that is one of Kaiser’s intentions, I think. He misdirects all the time. He leads you up one particular path and you end up being diverted unexpectedly down another one all the time.
Godley: The structure of the piece, the story and the content is unfamiliar to an audience. I think it’ll be really interesting and slightly unsettling. Every time you think you know where we are and what you’re watching, bang, it goes again.
Still: The first chapter, if you like, we think it’s about an Italian woman in a small German town. We don’t think it’s about the clerk at all until it kicks off. He’s been in his position for 25, 30 years of feeling completely oppressed by his life. He’s in a dormant state and gradually, like a tightly sprung coil, he’s just got to the point where he can’t take it anymore.
Godley: It takes a tiny thing to release and the explosion happens.
Still: What he’s really after is the truth. What is the truth of our existence? Is it right that we live in this family structure, is the institution of religion right, is the institution of this drudgery of work right? He wants to find something that gives him a sense of purpose.
Godley: His passion, his drive and his revolutionary zeal have all been crushed over the 25 years of working in this provincial bank.
Still: Once it’s released there’s no turning back, but of course he doesn’t do it in a measured thoughtful way.
How did you both come to the project?
Still: I’ve been involved for quite a long time actually. Sebastian Born, who runs the literary department at the National, wondered if I would be interested in having a look at it.
Godley: I guess it was about nine months ago you sent me an early draft of Dennis’ [Kelly, who has adapted Kaiser’s play] work. As an actor, just reading it you just have to speak it. I hadn’t heard of the play. I didn’t know anything about it. I read it and just thought “This is so crazy and so visceral.” I so loved a lot of what it was saying. I really felt “Yes”; I just got that tingly feeling. I also felt that clearly the play requires very particular treatment and probably the National is one of the few places you could mount a production of this play and do it any justice.
What do you think each other brings to the production?
Still: Adam brings an absolute believable poignancy and humanity to it. This is an everyman, and by that I mean every human. We have to be able to see our own fragility in the character of the clerk. It’s essential. That’s why when we were thinking about casting it I knew it had to be Adam Godley because, sparing his blushes, he has an extremely rare gift.
You could play it as a complete nutter, this part. He’s not a nutter actually, he’s like all of us with our various capacities to go down the wrong path sometimes or to think I can’t take any more of this. That was absolutely essential. Creating it around what he’s bringing is a wonderful opportunity.
Godley: I certainly can’t imagine anybody else doing this play because Melly has assembled an extraordinary group of people who are so open and so generous and work so beautifully together. When we sat down and Melly took me through her design I was so struck by how brave it was and how out there and courageous and uncompromising.
It’s very, very collaborative. There’s all these skilled people and everybody has input but Melly has a very firm grasp on the overall vision of the thing. I just think someone with Melly’s extraordinary imagination married with this play is the perfect storm. All our effort is focused towards creating an extraordinary experience for the audience and I can’t imagine better circumstances in which to do that.
I’m really fascinated to see what the audiences make of it. When people ask you what the play’s about you sort of don’t want to say because the audience need to come and they will have their own experience and every one will be different.
Still: That’s something that Kaiser always said as well. He would never say what his plays were about. He wanted people leaving his theatres arguing.
Godley: He definitely does not tie up ends, does he? Just when you think you’re coming to closure you turn 180 degrees. He’s adamant, no resolution.
Still: You have to go away and work that out for yourself in terms of your own life story.
Adam, does it have to be a special production to bring you back to the London stage these days?
Godley: It does, because I’ve been so fortunate and done so much theatre over many decades, I do want the audience to have an extraordinary experience. I don’t want to be part of anything that will be “That was nice, where shall we have dinner?” It’s too important and too beautiful. So if I’m going to come back and do a play, it’s got to at least have the opportunity of being a special and extraordinary experience for the audience. That’s what I want to be a part of and that’s why the minute I read this I said yes.