Interview: Chris Loscher and Mike Lees of Cerberus Theatre

It was on Kenneth Tynan’s list of plays he believed should be produced by the National. It scandalised audiences when it debuted in 1951 and was subsequently banned in Germany. Now, in the centenary year of Max Frisch’s birth, Cerberus Theatre Company presents the UK premiere of COUNT OEDERLAND at The White Bear from 1 November.

While investigating the apparently motiveless murder of a bank employee, a public prosecutor suffers a breakdown and assumes the identity of Count Oederland. The Count is a fairy tale character who chops down those who stand in his way with an axe. As his actions inspire others to ‘take to the axe’, the prosecutor finds himself the leader of a movement for freedom. But is it the liberation he had imagined?

I met with director Chris Loscher and designer Mike Lees after an exhausting but exhilarating first day of rehearsals to discuss Count Oederland’s appeal, its relevance in light of the London riots and the origins of Cerberus Theatre Company.

Tom Wicker: How did you come across Count Oederland and why did it interest you?

Christopher Loscher: I discovered it a couple of years ago in the British Library. I found what it had to say about mass violent action intriguing, particularly because the UK had never had a full-scale revolution like elsewhere in Europe or the USA. I liked the play’s examination of what it takes to spark one. This has become even more interesting since this summer’s riots. We didn’t have a revolution but we did witness mass violent action by people who hadn’t seemingly been part of a mainstream debate about anything and who took to the streets for lots of different reasons. The lack of a single explanation is fascinating and that’s what I like about Count Oederland: Max Frisch doesn’t provide answers, he allows you to draw your own conclusions. The play is socially and politically relevant, as well as being thought-provoking, entertaining and experiential.

The play was controversial when it was first performed, wasn’t it?

Mike Lees: Yes. It premiered in 1951 in Zurich, before being staged in Frankfurt in ’56 and Berlin in ‘61. The original ‘51 production caused protests and the play was subsequently banned from production in Germany. It was seen as promoting smash and grab; going out and getting what you want by any means necessary. The Germans didn’t like that, especially after the Second World War. There are newspaper headlines about people walking out, throwing furniture and ripping up seats.

CL: It does advocate some nihilistic things – the abandonment of hope and the abandonment of pleasure – but, essentially, I think it’s a humanist play. Frisch is criticising the things that we use as substitutes for living our lives. Count Oederland is very much about what it’s like for the average citizen, who works long hours, is always waiting for the weekend and who, ultimately, puts off pleasure. The main character, a prosecutor, becomes Count Oederland because he understands the axe-murdering bank clerk’s predicament; he works six days a week, handles money all the time but never has any. So he rejects the Protestant view of work as a virtue.

In favour of quite an Old Testament sense of justice?

CL: I think that Count Oederland sees what he does as necessary for change. In order to get people to a point where they aren’t relying on notions of an afterlife or the hope that they’ll win the lottery, there has to be anarchy. From his perspective, everything has to be smashed, if he’s going to break old habits. There can be no gradual evolution.

ML: And in terms of the Old Testament question, there’s no trial or retribution in the play. The prosecutor throws away his perfect middle-class life in search of something different, murders people with an axe and ends up running the country.

TW: Isn’t there a degree of satire in that?

CL: Yes, all political progression is about beheading your opponents. Anyone who gets to the top does a lot of chopping down of others along the way!

Frisch was scathing about societies he felt had become complacent. Do you think that one of the biggest shocks of the recent riots was that we had not expected them?

CL: Absolutely; and I think the fact that we hadn’t expected them is extraordinary. Since then, the government has said that 75% of the rioters were criminals. What does that mean? Did they cheat on their taxes? It’s a wide-ranging term. But what the government has done is to say that this means that it doesn’t matter that they didn’t see the riots coming – because these people don’t count. I find that interesting.

There’s a strong fairytale element to the play. Why do you think it’s there?

CL: Fairytales tend to be about heritage, about something ingrained and part of a long tradition of being told. They evolve and change but mostly they embody the values of a culture. So when we’re dealing with fairytales, we’re dealing with something deep in the psyche; something societal and to do with human nature. And Count Oederland embodies a widely-felt need – we’re always looking for somebody to follow.

ML: There’s something quite distancing about fairytales and legends. We’ve talked in rehearsals about Guy Fawkes, Robin Hood and Shockheaded Peter, and how they can seem funny and distant and childish. But if someone were actually to embody them, it would be met with complete abhorrence. The police would be after you! In part, that’s what Count Oederland is about. It begins with children singing nursery rhymes and minstrel songs about this fairytale character – and then he appears and starts telling them what to do. That’s when you realise the full implications of the myth.

How did Cerberus Theatre Company come about?

CL: It was formed by me, Mike and Vivian Clavering, who’s the technical manager and head of lighting. Viv and I went to Goldsmiths together and had collaborated on a few shows. Separately, Viv had also worked with Mike.

ML: I’d done lots of glitzy musicals at places like the Finborough. But I hadn’t had much chance to do serious drama.

CL: We really enjoyed working together and it was an opportunity to invest our passion and technical skills in pieces of our choosing rather than someone else’s. We started as Cerberus in the spring, with Holding Hands at Paschendale, which Mike picked. I have to say that I wasn’t convinced to begin with, but I trusted his judgement entirely and it was a fantastic experience; I was so proud of what came out of that piece. The audience responded incredibly well – they left crying! It takes a lot to make 35 middle-aged men burst into tears.

ML: Essentially, everything we’ve been looking at has been political and social. And we’re using Kenneth Tynan’s list of plays to be staged by The National Theatre as a jumping-off point. Although Chris discovered it independently, Count Oederland is on that list.

CL: There are three pillars to what we do: new writing; re-imagined classics (plays that have never been seen or haven’t been staged for a long time); and new translations or adaptations. We have quite a broad remit, but it presents us with exciting material – it’s great to discover new things. It also keeps us working quite hard!

Why the name, Cerberus?

CL: Because theatre – especially when you’re making something that you’re passionate about – is a cheeky, three-headed beast. You look at two elements and invariably a third turns up. That discovery is part of the excitement. For example, if you think of Max Frisch, you think of serious German drama. I’d read Count Oederland many times and done a lot of research, but it wasn’t until the first read-through with the company that I discovered how funny many parts of the play are. To get to a fundamental understanding of anything, you have to see the whole – but there’s always something that’s hidden. When we put on a play, part of the excitement is uncovering those hidden elements.

What attracts you to a play? Do you have fixed criteria in terms of what you look for?

CL: No. It’s a question of knowing it when you see it, really.

ML: I think it’s a case of timing, as well. Five or six years ago, I worked on Holding Hands at Paschendale with Martin Lynch, the writer, in Ireland – and it bombed. But the play was good and I was convinced that there would be a better time to stage it. So, when Cerberus was offered a slot at the White Bear, I suggested it as interesting route to go down. And with Martin’s permission, we took the play apart, recreated it as a highly emotive piece and it did really well. Similarly, Chris had Count Oederland in his back pocket for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until the Arab Spring and the riots that it felt like the right time. When we look at a play, we always ask: what’s happening in the world right now?

So, do you always have an eye on the headlines?

CL: Yes, absolutely. We have two or three things we’re looking at doing next year in relation to the Arab Spring. They’re about what happens when the spring turns into autumn. There’s a play that hasn’t been seen much, but which deals with what happens after a revolution. We think it’s terribly relevant but the existing translation is extremely academic, so we’re looking at commissioning a new one.

ML: Off the back of that, we’ve looked at other plays by the same author – some of which could be used to present another counterpoint down the line. So, one play can lead you to four others.

CL: And the nice thing about the three of us is that because we have divergent tastes, we’re able to expose each other to texts that, separately, we might not pick up.

The White Bear is a theatre you have returned to several times. Why?

CL: It’s a vibrant, and sympathetic, playing space.

ML: It’s a theatre that allows for experimentation and taking risks. Other theatres will only take recognised classics or polished pieces.

CL: In terms of quality, that approach is brilliant. But in terms of breadth and width of programming, it’s not always great. That’s not to say that the opportunity to try something untested doesn’t happen – The Police went to the BAC and they loved it.

ML: The White Bear is the kind of place that will allow you do the bad quarto Hamlet with an all-female cast or re-write half the scenes in Macbeth with Lady Macbeth as the main protagonist. It lets you experiment, to push the boundaries of what’s expected. For example, The Malcontent – which is also on this season – is a big Jacobean tragedy that’s been rewritten to fit with the Arab Spring. The theatre is also a good starting place for new companies. You can cut your teeth there.

So, what do you hope an audience will get out of seeing Count Oederland?

CL: I hope they have an interesting, visually stunning, entertaining and thought-provoking experience. It’s important to have a play full of ideas; it’s one of the reasons I live in London rather than New York. Here, and in Europe as a whole, theatre is seen as part of democracy, part of a dialogue. But, most of all, I want the audience to have a great ride. A play can have lots ideas, things to be expressed, but if these aren’t anchored by something that’s essentially emotional, they aren’t going to count for much.

ML: I also hope that the audience will ask questions. Off the back of Holding Hands at Paschendale, which was about cowardice and soldiers being shot at dawn, a lot of people were asking: why did that happen? We had a lot of support from the Shot at Dawn campaign and the Sassoon Society, who were happy to pick up the slack and provide answers. Hopefully, by the end of Count Oederland, audiences will be thinking more deeply about why events like the London riots happen.

Count Oederland is at The White Bear Theatre from 1 November to 19 November. You can buy tickets here:

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