Walter Meierjohann talks about The Funfair

Stockport-born playwright Simon Stephens has adapted Ödön von Horváth’s European classic Kasimir and Karoline to open our theatre programme. Mike Barnett talks to Walter Meierjohann, our Artistic Director: Theatre, about the collaboration.

MB: How did the collaboration between HOME and Simon Stephens come about? Is it simply a coincidence that he was brought up locally?

WM: I’ve always been a big admirer of Simon’s work and funnily enough, his work is very well known in Germany, he’s a big name there. Kasimir and Karoline – or The Funfair, as Simon has named his version – has always been a play I’d wanted to do, and although we decided early on it was going to be in the opening programme, I didn’t know exactly when in the programme it would land. Pairing a classic European play with a respected well-known contemporary playwright, and a local playwright at that being a bonus, just made sense to me, as it’s bringing together the relatively unknown with the known, in a way. It also really helped that Simon knew the play and loved it before we met. There is a similarity in Simon’s and von Horváth’s sparseness and economy in using language, so it really made sense to pair these two great writers.

MB: I’m interested in why Ödön von Horváth is a relatively unfamiliar name to British theatre audiences. He was a contemporary of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, but they are far better known. Why is this, do you think?

WM: He died quite young, in 1938 when he was 37, so maybe that’s why. Like Brecht, he came from a privileged background, but his focus was very much on working class people, and I find his work more humane and funnier than Brecht. Had he lived he might well have ended up on a boat to New York and then, like Brecht and Weill, writing scripts in Hollywood.

MB: Kasimir and Karoline deals with a specific place and time in history. How relevant is that setting to this version, and how faithful is Simon’s script to the original?

WM: Simon’s given us a script very much set in the north, although we’re still not sure if it’s specifically Manchester. It’s quite faithful to the original, but he has expanded on some aspects of the original that feel a bit dated now. The language is also, I would say, very contemporary. The relationship between women and men in the play is quite violent also, and we didn’t want to iron that out. But we’re still placing the play in time it was written, but as we’re using video projections – there’s a Zeppelin in the original, for example! – it’ll feel modern.

MB: Is there a risk opening the new building with a piece which, for all its updating, might still be something of an unknown quantity?

WM: To be realistic, there aren’t many British theatres that would put this on. So yes, there is a risk in that it’s not a Shakespeare, it’s not an Oscar Wilde. But we’re launching it at the beginning, so there will be a lot of media interest. And a lot of people will want to see the building, so we can be bold, very bold. I think it’s a great play. In my view, it is one of the European masterpieces of the first half of the 20th century – and it has a lot to say about the world we live in now at the beginning of the 21st century!

MB: The play wasn’t as overtly political as I expected, which surprised me given that von Horváth moved from Germany to Vienna when the Nazis took power, and then from Vienna to Paris just after the time of the Anschluss. Or is that down to Simon’s adaptation?

WM: It was written in 1929, around the time of the Great Depression, and so only a few years before the Nazis came to power. You can sense there’s a mood, a foreboding, a sense that something’s going to happen. The Funfair is a symbol of capitalism, and in the foreground you have people struggling. People are losing their jobs, so it is a political piece. I’m not comparing Britain in 2015 to Germany in 1929, but the rise of the right-wing is definitely in the background, and the sense of economic uncertainty then is not that dissimilar to the situation today.

MB: One of the themes of the play – a pair of lovers, a doomed relationship – mirrors that to some extent of Romeo & Juliet. Indeed there’s a reference to Romeo & Juliet in Simon’s script. Is it in the original?

WM: That’s a little nod from Simon to British cultural heritage! Kasimir and Karoline is the polar opposite to Romeo & Juliet in that here they break up and go their separate ways right at the beginning, rather than at the end, as they do in Romeo & Juliet. The message here is that economics come between them.

MB: Your first HOME job was Romeo & Juliet so I hope there’s no danger of you getting typecast as a director of plays about doomed relationships!

WM: No, not at all! Kasimir and Karoline, or Cash and Caroline as they are in our version, don’t have extraordinary abilities, or gifts. That’s not meant to be derogatory; von Horváth was very interested in what he called ‘the little people’, and how they responded to political issues. Whereas Romeo & Juliet was about passion and emotion, Ödön von Horváth wrote with lots of pauses and silences, so what people will see in Kasimir and Karoline will be very different to what they saw in Romeo & Juliet.

The Funfair runs from Thu 14 May – Sat 13 Jun. To find out more and book tickets, click here