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A craftsman of the stage

A portrait of Andreas Kriegenburg — By Marius Muller

Despite making quite an impact at the Avignon Festival in 2010, Andreas Kriegenburg remains largely unknown to French audiences. It is a mistake we should correct, especially when we take into account the exceptional European stage career of a man charged with the demanding mission of staging Les Huguenots. Portrait.


The director of Les Huguenots found his way in to the theatre via a somewhat surreptitious route. It is generally known that he was born in 1963 in what was then the German Democratic Republic. A carpenter by trade, he acquired his theatrical experience on the job before becoming famous through his collaborative projects with the author Dea Loher. However, the body of his work is far more extensive: in a career that has spanned 30 years, Andreas Kriegenburg has staged 130 productions in some of Germany’s most prestigious theatres. So who is this artist whom the singer Barbara Hannigan considers as her mentor, along with Krzsysztof Warlikowski and Katie Mitchell? What image do the productions and work that have made his name across the Rhine give us?
By chance, at the end of his training, the young carpenter joined the workshops of the Magdeburg theatre. Whilst there, he discovered a place of potential freedom and ultimately went on to become an assistant director in Zittau. Bubbling with a beginner’s enthusiasm, he presented an extremely complex project for the staging of Heiner Müller’s Philoctetes to the theatre’s director. Andreas earned his trust and was given the task of staging the theatre’s annual fairy tale. A few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he directed his first real production: Strindberg’s Miss Julie (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1989).
In the euphoria of reunification, Kriegenburg joined Frank Castorf at the Berlin Volksbühne and whilst there he scored his first big success. His production of Büchner’s Woyzeck (Volksbühne, 1991) drew the attention of the critics, and, at the age of 28, they took him under their wing and invited him to the prestigious Berliner Theatertreffen. Soon thereafter, Kriegenburg befriended the dramatist and theatre director Ulrich Khuon, who in turn introduced him to the Hanover Staatstheater. In 1995, by staging Dea Loher’s Fremdes Haus, he forged another key relationship in his life as an artist. The author’s delicate prose, her piercingly lucid perception of reality, the extreme sensibility with which she described the vulnerability of others won him over. Over the next seventeen years, Andreas Kriegenburg staged sixteen of the German playwright’s works.
The 2000s were a period of success. Briefly associated with the Burgtheater in Vienna where he staged Wedekind’s Lulu, Kriegenburg ultimately chose to re-join Ulrich Khuon at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, where he had become the principal director. Whilst there, Kriegenburg staged Dea Loher’s Innocence (2003) and The Last Fire (2008), which earned the Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis for the play itself and the Faust-Theaterpreis for the direction. He also made his opera debut with Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (Magdeburg, 2006). However, his first true success in the genre came two years later with Berg’s Wozzeck (Munich, 2008).

Ein Käfig ging einen Vogel suchen de Franz Kafka, mise en scène d’Andreas Kriegenburg, Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 2016
Ein Käfig ging einen Vogel suchen de Franz Kafka, mise en scène d’Andreas Kriegenburg, Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 2016 © Imago / Studio X

At the time, the Deutsches Theater was regarded as the finest in Berlin and when Ulrich Khuon took over as director, Kriegenburg again followed him. Whilst there, he staged Kleist’s The Prince of Homborg (2009) and Loher’s Diebe (2010) which earned him the title of scenographer of the year. Also in 2010, he received a warm welcome from audiences at the Avignon Festival where he presented an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial with the troupe of the Munich Kammerspiele.
It was at this point that Kriegenburg earned recognition in the domain of opera. To express the traumatic presence of the war in Otello’s mind and the way it impacted his behaviour, Kriegenburg transposed Verdi’s eponymous work into a refugee camp (Berlin, 2008). The director continued to explore these questions in Ödön von Horváth’s Don Juan kommt aus dem Krieg (Salzburg, 2014) and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (Munich, 2014), hailed as the production of the year by Opernwelt magazine.
However, his most successful production in the genre was his Ring (Munich, 2012), in which he sought to employ a “collective narrative” by exploiting the visual aspects of Wagner’s drama. The various elements of the set were represented by a crowd of extras, a sort of corporal raw material successively embodying the waters of the Rhine, the flames of the furnace, the dragon Fafner and Valhalla… However the legend implicit in these fantastic visions gave way to a world devastated in the aftermath of Fukushima and the financial crises. This was a Twilight of the Gods which was also our own. Here, his cast direction is implicit in the decadent gesture: by amplifying the stirring, intimate details, it gave them precedence over the symbolic and made the gods more human.
If his theatre feeds on images, it is difficult to distinguish Kriegenburg’s own style, since his work explores different angles and viewpoints .
As someone who became involved in theatre through manual labour, Kriegenburg gives practice precedence in his conception of the theatre. Indeed, the term Theatermacher, which could be translated as theatre practitioner, suits him better than Regisseur or stage director. His use of the body in the persistent elements of his work—be it choreography, acrobatics or dance—also demonstrates this shift in accent. Just like his permanent back and forth between writing and performance, by favouring the adaptation of non-dramatic works, a collage of texts, stage writing or the staging of his own texts (Kassandra: Ein Projekt 2003; Die Zelle 2008…)
As such, Andreas Kriegenburg embraces the concept of Autorentheater developed by Ulrich Khuon in the middle of the 1990s. Not a French-style "théâtre d’auteur" but, rather, “the continuous collaboration between director, author, actors and dramatists”. Rather than writing for the theatre per se, Dea Loher, for example, who sees the stage as a “language space”, places her texts in the hands of a practitioner capable of revealing their inherent theatricality. From this perspective, Kriegenburg constantly strives to link body language with semantic language. He notes, for example, that Kafka’s text changed the actors in The Trial: “Language marks the body of the one who uses it and Kafka literally creates the body as a receptacle for his language.”

Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Festival de Salzbourg, 2017
Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Festival de Salzbourg, 2017 © akg images / Marion Kalter

Regarding theatre as a celebration of language, Kriegenburg likes to construct a narrative in his productions. To achieve this, he explores all manifestations of theatre that have given dramatic form to the problems of their time be it the original ancient Greek tragedy (Medea 1991, 2001 ; The Oresteia 2002), the great dramatic works of Shakespeare confronting the advent of modernity, the drama of the Enlightenment inventing liberty (Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Mozart…), the theatre of the 19th century questioning the social and industrial changes (Strindberg, Büchner, Ibsen, Chekhov…), that of the 20th century questioning political subjectivity in the face of fascism (Lorca, Brecht, Sartre…) or contemporary writings grappling with a pervasive crisis of purpose  (Loher, but also Houellebecq and Anja Hilling). For him, dramatic texts are both universal and relevant to our time. Just as Kriegenburg gave added meaning to the Ring or Otello by placing them in the context of the contemporary world, in Michel Houellebecq’s Plateforme (which he staged in Hanover in 2003) he sees less of a novel about sex tourism than a “profoundly romantic” work on the nostalgic quest for true love.
Other than being a language space, the theatre for Kriegenburg is also a crucible of experimentation for the other arts. If his penchant for narrative naturally led him towards the novel (he will be staging Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler in Munich, after Les Huguenots), Kriegenburg has also produced choreographies (Feuer/Vogel, 1988; Kaffee-Braun 1999); musicals (Satie’s Le piège de Méduse, 1992; Burroughs, and Waits’ The Black Rider, 2000 ; Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera, 2017) and has adapted films such as I Hired a Contract Killer (Aki Kaurismäki, 1997) Les Enfants du paradis (Prévert and Carné, 2001), The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 2004) or From the Life of the Marionettes (Bergman, 2007). Combining drama, narrative and image, film is particularly present in his work, notably in his production of The Trial which exploits the use of images on every level. First, because the play unfurls in a gigantic eye, at the centre of which a pivoting iris serves as a gantry for the actors. In this set, evocative of both the sketches of Kafka and the eerie locales of expressionist cinema, the eight actors each in turn perform the role of Joseph K and the other characters of the novel. Thus multiplied, the hero is constantly confronted by his own reflection and, against this backdrop, the actors are forced to play with an air of gravitas a succession of gags inspired from comic cinema—in particular, the films of Kriegenburg’s favourite actor Buster Keaton.
The emotion, or rather the combination of contradictory emotions is also a feature of his work. Just as he draws The Trial towards “humour and a harrowing sort of tomfoolery” we find laughter in all his work, even in his sombre and pessimistic vision of the Ring. “His best works conceal so much strength, humour and melancholy poetry", comments Christine Dössel, "that it cleaves every heart between a feeling of pain and joy.”
Andreas Kriegenburg looks upon theatre and his approach to it as a work of language: language through body, images, and narrative in which the actor takes precedence over all else. Here, a conception of the world shows through. Sometimes bittersweet, sometimes tragi-comical, and sometimes pessimistic, it is always sustained by hope.

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