Manfred Karge: The playwright who grapples with the underclass

Theatre director Stephen Unwin on why he is championing a European maverick

It must have been in late 1986 that word reached me of an extraordinary new one-woman play by the great East German director and playwright Manfred Karge. I managed to get hold of the script and was blown away. I directed the British premiere of Man to Man with Tilda Swinton at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival of the following year, and it moved to the Royal Court in January 1988. And then, later that year, I worked with Alan Cumming, Ewen Bremmer and a stellar Scottish cast on Karge's second play, The Conquest of the South Pole, which also went on to a sold-out season at the Royal Court. Both plays then became films.

This was all part of an amazingly heady period at the Traverse, with some of our most brilliant, young (they were then!) actors – including Ken Stott, Simon Russell Beale, Katrin Cartlidge and Kathryn Hunter, as well as Tilda, Alan, Ewen and dozens of others – all working together in a tiny theatre on contemporary plays from Scotland and abroad.

So how did these two plays manage to get past the usual British suspicion of contemporary German drama and make such a mark? I think it's partly because they are so amazingly theatrical; with their mixture of prose and poetry, realism and artifice, Classicism and the contemporary, they played a key part in my generation's reaction against the limits of kitchen-sink naturalism.

But they're not just concerned with theatricality for its own sake: Manfred Karge started out as an actor at Brecht's Berliner Ensemble (he was discovered by Helene Weigel in 1961 and now, 50 years later, he's working there again) and these plays are not just brilliantly Brechtian in their theatrical style but they also share some of his revolutionary politics. More importantly, they catch a wild, anarchic energy, the untutored rawness of those who live at the fringes of society, whether it be the cross-dressing crane operator Ella Gericke surviving the long trauma of 20th-century German history by disguising herself as her dead husband (a memorable performance by a young Tilda Swinton), or the gang of unemployed lads from the Ruhr acting out Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole among the sheets hanging up to dry in the attic.

Karge's subjects are the people we usually walk by on the street without stopping to notice, the youths who break into shops in the London riots and are dismissed as feral criminals, the underclass to whom the nation's wealth never seems to "trickle down". Alienation is their permanent condition, and they spend most of their time beating their heads against the brick walls of their wasted lives. But Karge dramatises their struggle for dignity in the most powerful and unsentimental way imaginable and endows them with passion, imagination, and tremendous humanity. The contemporary German theatre is often dismissed as numbingly intellectual, tediously provocative or just bad: Karge's poetic dramas are the opposite.

"Never go back," people say in the theatre. So why revisit the South Pole now? Well, partly, because Britain seems to be going back to the 1980s in so many ways: record levels of long-term youth unemployment and tax breaks for the very rich, as well as Thatcherite attacks on young people without work as "benefit scroungers", is all too familiar for those of us who remember the Eighties. I don't really believe in "relevance" in drama, but The Conquest of the South Pole feels extraordinarily pertinent in 2012.

But I also wanted to revive Karge's brilliant parable of hope and despair, collaboration and individuality, dreams and reality, because it is one of the most powerful plays of the modern theatre, and which can, I hope, speak to a new generation.

'The Conquest of the South Pole', Arcola Theatre, London E8 (020 7503 1646) 25 April to 26 May

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits