The last time the influential German director Peter Stein had a play on in London, he won an Olivier. Somewhat surprising to learn, then, that that play, The Hairy Ape, was on at the National a staggering 19 years ago.
Aged 67, this most cerebral of international directors is only now getting his West End debut with the harrowing 2005 Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) hit Blackbird, a play that questions received notions of love and paedophilia.
When Blackbird closed last August, few thought it would turn up in the West End - not for lack of quality, but simply because festival productions the world over have a habit of disappearing come the end of their all-too-short runs. Lacking the usual ingredients of a West End transfer - no blockbuster tunes, no Hollywood stars, no big-name writer - Blackbird will, nonetheless, open at the Albery next month with all its Edinburgh ingredients intact, including the cast of Roger Allam and Jodhi May in her West End debut.
Stein, the formative artistic director of Berlin's Schaubühne in the Seventies and Eighties, was the original German theatre maverick, staging ambitious collaborations with writers including Botho Strauss and directors such as Luc Bondy.
Despite his radical roots, Stein is now in self-imposed "exile" in Italy (his actress wife is Italian), deemed too "conservative" by the German theatre he helped to create for his strong criticism of Germany's modern "avant-garde" and for his concentration, instead, on the textual intricacies of the classics.
Stein, who later this year will direct Troilus and Cressida in a joint EIF/RSC production, is not a man to do things by halves. In 2000, he staged the uncut version of Goethe's Faust at the Hanover Expo, a work so unwieldy that it ran for 21 consecutive hours with a cast of 35.
Not the man, you would say, despite his youthful passion for the new, to take on a new work by a young Scottish writer, with a cast of two. But Blackbird is just that, an unlikely combination between a theatre giant and David Harrower, who is respected but remains relatively little known in spite of his successful 1995 debut Knives in Hens, which was hailed as a modern classic.
Harrower's writing currency is ambiguity, "although that's probably not very sensible in this day and age," he admitted when we met for a pint in a Glasgow theatre bar before Blackbird's opening run. "If I ever find I know what my plays are about, that's when I start worrying, because as soon as I start reducing it to knowing what's going on, I'm in trouble." He has a Scottish talent for innovating with language.
Stein, on the other hand, thrives on the intellectual challenge of obscurity, analysing the reason for the presence of every last word in the script and using only this to build his understanding of the play. He doesn't talk about plays in terms of seeing or staging them, he talks about reading them. In this sense, it doesn't matter whether the text is Aeschylus or Harrower as long as there is something worthwhile to investigate.
Blackbird is the story of a 41-year-old man who had a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl and their subsequent meeting 15 years after they ran away together. It was inspired by the abduction of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by the US Marine Toby Studebaker in 2001.
"I don't know that this is a play about paedophilia," Stein says dismissively. "This is a play about love. Erotic sexual love; the impossibility of love, as with Romeo and Juliet. What we see on stage is a man of 55 and a woman of 28. They could go tomorrow, get married and have children, why not?" he demands, thumping the table. "This is the very interesting idea David Harrower proposes; that it is possible now and not 15 years before. And the question for me is, 'Where is the love in it?' I think that's much more interesting than a play about paedophilia. I would not touch such a play. We go to the theatre to play lions or Red Indians, kings or monsters or giants!" he says. "I don't go to the theatre to play myself." Social drama is for TV, he says. "I hate myself. Everyone should hate themselves, it is a good place to start." He smiles.
Stein became interested in Harrower when he heard about the 1997 Baracke Deutsche Theater adaptation of Knives in Hens, a text he found "extremely impressive". Despite Stein's "disappointment" with Harrower's fourth play, Dark Earth, he was open to EIF director Brian McMaster's suggestion that he collaborate with Harrower on a new production. "But the text had to be good," he says firmly.
After Harrower flew to Umbria for a "frankly disastrous" weekend to discuss ideas, the director's eventual decision rested entirely on a brief incomplete script he received just days before the final deadline for inclusion in the 2005 festival. He said yes immediately.
"Peter was really taken by it," Harrower says. "I didn't have to explain much; he was very quickly in with his own ideas of exactly what the play was about, and that was fine with me."
Because Edinburgh was "a festival I never imagined I'd be writing for," and Stein was "a man who directs armies with megaphones," Harrower initially tried to pack as many people on stage as possible, including, at one point, a Belgian choir and the ghost of Marvin Gaye. But when he tried to explain why to his wife, "it just shattered in front of me".
A double-hander - strictly a triple, if you include a minor but crucial role towards the end - is a casting nightmare. An actor's talent, Stein says, is a form of erotic presence. "Some people just make a hole on the stage." Two-handers like Blackbird are very difficult to predict. Two weeks before the August opening, Stein was still unsure that Allam and May would gel.
If the text-based relationship between Stein and Harrower seems symbiotic, personal communication is trickier. Stein initially thought Harrower was "getting nothing of use from me," yet Harrower felt inspired. Now Harrower thinks Stein probably wouldn't work on any of his plays again, yet Stein calls Harrower's work "the most fun I have ever had. From the first day to the last minute of the rehearsals I enjoyed discovering the dramatic elements in this text. Only with Botho Strauss have I had fun like this, and with Blackbird I have had even more fun because David works with a leitmotif technique, repeating certain words and themes. It is stunning.
"For a director of my style, who doesn't call himself an author but an interpreter of texts, it was very satisfying that David gave me the chance to participate in the writing. He has created a fantastically written play with an amazing degree of scenic fantasy. My role, as a director, is small; it is like traffic organisation. I work out how the actors move around," Stein says, talking like a man who has rediscovered the elixir of his own youth.
Yet he refuses to allow himself to feel satisfied with the end result. "I am never happy. I am not paid to be happy. I am paid to see what is not functioning and not working and to better it. Therefore, how can I be happy?"
'Blackbird', Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6621), 7 February to 13 MayReuse content