Meet the German artists revolutionising UK stage design

When Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet came to the Barbican in 2011, designer Hildegard Bechtlerwasn’t the only artist in the audience. “Everybody I’ve ever met in theatre was there,” the German-born designer remembers. Looking at Jan Pappelbaum’s muddy field of a stage – a square of earth soaked by sprinklers in its first scene – she felt a flush of pride: “Nobody could do that here. Nobody could have that kind of vision.”

Since then, things have changed. Swathes of British theatre­makers have sought inspiration from their German counterparts. As Bechtler says, they do things differently there: directors rip into scripts as raw material and actors eschew naturalism altogether. But if German theatre’s influence is visible here, it has had most impact on stage design.

The precise effect is hard to pin down, as it is impossible to compress a country’s culture into a single set of coherent aesthetics. German design isn’t a single entity, and very little links the gaudy lollipop look of Herbert Fritsch’s surreal shows to Ulrich Rasche’s imposing industrial mechanisms clanking on stage. Pappelbaum’s material approach – paint-splashed and meat-strewn – is at odds with Lena Newton’s uncanny plasticity.

Even so, there are echoes in British designers’ work, whether in the surge of stage viscera – blood, mud and ketchup – or the influx of inflatables. It’s in the recent tendency to admire an auditorium’s architecture, baring the brick walls of the Royal Court or the Almeida. Broadly speaking, Brits have turned from the pictorial to the sculptural in recent years – from recognisable realistic spaces to non-naturalistic stages.

But Magda Willi, a Swiss stage designer who studied in London and is based in Berlin, argues that there’s no aesthetic divide between the two nations. She sees the distinction in terms of form: “A lot of it comes from the way we tell stories.” Brits lean into narrative, Germans tend towards the conceptual.

As such, designers use the stage differently. “It’s never background and it’s never pretty,” Bechtler says. “It does think differently.”

Magda Willi’s design for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, London, 2014. Photo: Tristram Kenton

To illustrate the point, Willi recalls redesigning Benedict Andrews’ staging of A Streetcar Named Desire for the Young Vic, after its Schaubuhne premiere. “It was the same production with the same director,” she says, but a new space and, crucially, a new audience changed everything. Instead of an empty stage backed with a pile-up of props and furniture as in Berlin, Stanley and Stella’s London flat was laid out like a floorplan – kitchenette, boudoir, bathroom next door. “We had things to hold on to,” Willi explains. “We kept our more experimental ideas, but with a more naturalistic approach.”

However, Willi believes the two cultures are closing in on each other. She’s back at the Young Vic, working with a British director for the first time on Kate Hewitt’s revival of Jesus Hopped the A Train. “I do feel that gap has become smaller,” she says. “People on both sides have started looking at what the other side does.”

Bechtler agrees. She has spent her career in Britain, having emigrated from Stuttgart in the 1970s. “London was the place to be then,” she says, citing its music scene rather than its theatre. Nor is she alone: Miriam Buether, Merle Hensel and Anna Fleischle are all based in Britain. “It’s no accident that there are now more German designers at work here,” Bechtler says. “They’re all working with a certain type of director.” The implication is that there has been a gradual overlap.

‘I can’t imagine how UK theatre designers manage to have families’ – Magda Willi

It runs both ways. Eight years out of drama school, Sarah Beaton designed her first show in Germany last year: Faust at the Altes Schauspielhaus. Despite acknowledging the differences between the two scenes – “British theatre’s still reserved, Germany feels more playful, less contained” – Beaton said she didn’t change her style in Stuttgart, only her process. It’s a sign that Brits can slot in abroad.

Willi says that’s hardly surprising: the director-designer relationship is the same. Much of the difference is monetary. Budgets are bigger – Beaton was “never really told” hers – as are fees. Where Willi needs three shows a year to get by in Berlin, Beaton needs six or seven in London. “I can’t imagine how designers manage to have families,” Willi marvels. “Directors wouldn’t work with me if I did that much work. I’m expected to be present – not full-time, but a lot.”

Such conditions do, ultimately, create different cultures. “There’s an understanding we’re making art,” Willi says. “Shows might not sell, but British directors have that pressure.” It means six weeks of rehearsals, not two months, with production managers keeping track of time. In Germany, production managers don’t even exist. Perhaps the grass is always greener, but Willi envies that efficiency, while British designers crave German freedoms. The belief is that it makes better art.

Anna Fleischle’s puppet-strewn set for A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre, London, 2018. Photo: Manuel Harlan

British theatre has long looked to Germany in awe; Ralph Koltai’s recent death was a reminder of that. Born in Berlin, he emigrated in 1939, aged 15, and later revolutionised British design, creating stages that were more like abstract sculptures than traditional sets. He fashioned a Forest of Arden out of plastic and metal, part woodland, part thunderstorm, and sat The Tempest on a dish, like a lunar landscape. Even 50 years on, his work still seems contemporary – bold spatial gestures with a sense of real scale.

He was following in Jocelyn Herbert’s footsteps – a designer indebted to the Berliner Ensemble style. Having recreated Brecht’s staging of The Good Person of Szechwan with Peggy Ashcroft, she adopted its functional, no-frills aesthetic as her own, becoming the most influential designer of the post-war period. “Jocelyn Herbert was the radical,” Bechtler says. “She was the innovator.”

Indeed, by the time Bechtler began work in the 1980s, many experimental theatremakers were looking to Germany, as directors such as Peter Stein, Heiner Goebbels and Christoph Marthaler hit their stride. Designers including Tom Cairns and Antony McDonald frequently travelled over to see Axel Manthey and Anna Viebrock’s work.

“It didn’t exist here, that sort of theatre,” Bechtler says. “What I was doing didn’t suit most English directors.” Collaborating with theatremakers such as Tim Albery and Deborah Warner, she found a space to hone her instinctive sculptural style. “It became more mainstream,” she says, modestly. The ships and shapes of the recent Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre were hers, as were the spare stages of Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart and Oresteia that both went to the West End. The latter was recently restaged in Stuttgart, Bechtler’s first gig in the city of her birth.

If the gap between London and Berlin has closed, blame the internet. British designers today have access to German theatre like never before. When Willi was studying at the turn of the millennium, she “knew the big names overseas, but the focus was on what designers were doing here”. Beaton, by contrast, relied on an online archive of designs from across the world. If British and German theatre really are closer together, it’s partly because the world is getting smaller.