When Nick Bagnall met Manfred Karge [1/2]
In 1989, when I was a student there were two plays that I knew of. One was Jim Cartwright’s Road and the other was The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge. I always remember it being a brilliant play so when it came up for the Company season, it felt kind of right for me. I went to meet Manfred at the Berliner Ensemble. I’d never been to Berlin before but I’d always wanted to go. It was quite strange, the whole thing was completely absurd – it was brilliant.
He is nearly 80 and does not speak a word of English. As we walked on to the stage all the crew stopped and they were kind of bowing, like ‘Oh my god it’s Manfred Karge’. He stood centre stage and told me that in 1961 he stood in this exact spot with Helene Weigel, who was married to Brecht, and she had asked him to join the Berliner Ensemble. We looked out into the auditorium and he pointed up to the gods, the upper circle, and he said when Brecht arrived in 1939 he did that.
He pointed to this 1930’s military eagle, I think it was a German Democratic Republic (GDR) icon, and Brecht had demanded that they put a cross in red paint over the top of all of it which had anything to do with the military or GDR. He basically wanted to say this is a theatre and it shouldn’t be a place of authority, establishment or oppression. He showed me the exact one where Brecht had got a step ladder and put a cross over in red paint and the artefact still stands.
Eventually he talked about why he wrote the play. He came from a mining village on the outskirts of Berlin and remembered from his childhood that everything that he would touch and everything around them would be covered in black dust and soot from the coal pits. He grew up with three books in the house: the Bible, a cookery book and The Conquest of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen.
So as a child he used to bury himself in that book because everything was white, clean, fresh and so distant from their average existence. They grew up in a really poor area but this book allowed his imagination to run free and go beyond that and that comes up in the play a little bit. The character of La Braukman talks about the idea that everything she touches turns to black or that there’s soot and the only place where it is clean is the attic because the soot doesn’t rise that high. It was really fascinating to hear him talk about the play and I buzzed off that a lot.
Manfred Karge in conversation with Nick Bagnall
Tue 4 Apr 2017 // 6.30pm, theatre bar
The Conquest of the South Pole is at the Everyman until Sat 8 Apr
Posted in THE EVERYMAN COMPANY