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Peter’s friends

The Scotsman, 15th July 2003, Joyce McMillan

For Edinburgh International Festival Director Brian McMaster, it all began in the spring of 1977, when Peter Stein’s legendary production of Maxim Gorky’s ‘Summerfolk’ made a brief nine-day appearance at the National Theatre in London, as the first foreign language production ever seen there.

At that time, Peter Stein was just 40, and had already been director of the Schambuhne Theatre in Berlin for five years, building a formidable reputation as one of the most thrilling directors in Europe. But nothing had prepared McMaster – who had just taken on a new job at Welsh National Opera – for the impact of this tremendous production, staged on real earth among a grove of real birch trees, and already five years in the maturing when it appeared in London. “I just knew,” he says, “that I was looking at the work of a truly great director, and that I wanted to bring his work to British audiences, if I possibly could.”

And over the last 20 years, McMaster has kept that promise in spectacular style. In Cardiff, he persuaded an initially reluctant Stein to stage a series of memorable opera productions; and when McMaster arrived in Edinburgh in 1991, one of his first thoughts was to include Stein’s work in the Festival drama programme. In 1993, Stein’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ famously played in an old aircraft hangar at Ingliston neat Edinburgh airport. In 1994, the Festival presented his ‘Oresteia’ at Murrayfield ice rink. And in 1996 and 1997, Edinburgh caught its first glimpse of Stein’s special relationship with Chekhov, when his Italian ‘Uncle Vanya’ played at the King’s Theatre, and his mighty Salzburg production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at the Festival Theatre.

And this year, that relationship between Stein and the Festival – and between Stein and Chekhov – is set to reach a new level, as Stein works for the first time with British-based actors, in English, to stage his first-ever production of ‘The Seagull’, with the inimitable Fiona Shaw leading a glittering cast that includes Iain Glen, Jodhi May, and the wonderful Michael Pennington. “To hear Stein talk about Chekhov is a phenomenal experience,” says McMaster. “He really is obsessed with the beauty and potential of those plays; so much so that the Russians themselves perceive him as the major director of Chekhov of our time.”

So what is the magical Stein quality which has made such a profound impression on a generation of European theatre-goers? In one sense, his gift is notoriously hard to define; he is, as Brian McMaster says, “the text director par excellence”, deeply focused on the particular text in hand.

But the defining influence on his work seems to have come in his early years at the Schaubuhne, between 1972 and 1980, when he became director of an independent theatre in West Berlin with lavish levels of funding, and – in the political spirit of the time – chose to run his big Schaubuhne company almost as a workers’ collective, in which every member, from the chief executive to the junior carpenter, would have an equal say in determining artistic policy and direction. In practical terms, this revolutionary model for running a theatre company never quite worked. But the idea or ideal of it unleashed a huge amount of creative energy, attracted the most intelligent and engaged of actors, and created the atmosphere of total immersion in, and responsibility for, the work that underpinned the huge artistic success of the Schaubuhne in the 1970s and early 1980s.

And the result of that deep involvement in the detail and background of texts was a company increasingly famous for creating whole shimmering worlds into which the audience could enter; and for what the Scottish playwright David Greig calls “a real, profound exploration of what naturalism in the theatre might actually mean, as opposed to the quick, rough-and-ready imitation of naturalism we see so often in British theatre”.

So that when people reach for words to describe the experience of a Stein production, they often talk first of the way Stein led them into a new space, into the crumbling, sunlit, bleached-birch rural world of ‘Uncle Vanya’, or to the edge of the great, expansive tilted stage on which he played out his ‘Cherry Orchard’.

But in the end, too, they always talk about actors; about the spine-tingling visceral force of Gert Voss’s Mark Antony as he cried havoc and unleashed the dogs of war, or the unforgettable merry sadness of Jutta Lampe’s Ranevskaya in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ “You can debate for ever about all the methods Stein uses as a director,” says McMaster, “about his scenic sense, his obsession with text, his deep research into history and period. But in the end, it’s all at the service of one thing, and that is to get extraordinary performances out of actors.

“In that respect, he is simply a master of what he does, and he will be again, this summer.”

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