Corinna Harfouch on Queen Lear, her enthusiasm for new things and the fear of utopia’s end.
Interview: Arno Widmann

AW: You’re in preparations for Queen Lear...
CH: Not really. I’m still in Hannover. We’re rehearsing the dramatisation of the novel Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (Annette. An Epic Heroine) by Anne Weber. You’re yanking me out of that just now. That’s the way itis in the theatre. Of course, I’ve spoken with Christian Weise and Christian Tschirner (part of Soeren Voima) about Queen Lear, but at the moment I’m still in the middle of Heldinnenepos.

AW: Mr Weise said you both had already joked about when you would finally be old enough to play King Lear. But, for starters, Queen Lear is only halfway there. CH: I’ve already played many men in Christian Weise’s productions.
This time I assumed that it would be a man again. Then the entire family constellation was changed. I didn’t really understand that at first. But it was explained to me and now I’m trying to work my way into it. I’m trying now to simply play a woman in a staging of his.

AW: Disappointing.
CH: It is certainly not disappointing to play a woman. It is supposed to be a play for the present day. Our views on gender roles have changed, or at least we’re attempting to change them. The authors felt it was unacceptable that, apart from Cordelia, King Lear’s daughters are purely negative characters. So they made them into men, and now that makes sense to me.

AW: The assumption is that it won’t turn out terribly.
CH: Of course there are parts in all classic plays that it’s better to keep. But theatre is a fleeting, contemporary art. We should always attempt – no matter the material – to say something about our present. The purpose of our work is to research, speak and perform for this present.

AW: But this work is more than just a noble pursuit. Isn’t it also fun?
CH: I am of an age when I don’t do anything that I don’t enjoy anymore. In any job, of course, there comes a time when it’s not all fun. At some point it becomes terribly tedious, at another very difficult. At some point one must simply work very hard. During every job there are very unhappy moments, but I would never take on a job where I couldn’t promise myself it would entertain me and help me grow.

AW: What do you mean by »grow«?
CH: My hope is always that I’m doing something that I’ve never done before. I don’t enjoy productions in which I just – so to speak – conjure up something I can already do. That happens. But I strive for the opposite.

AW: The more new things you’ve already done, the more difficult it is to find new things.
CH: I’m doing Heldinnenepos with British director Lily Sykes. Two years ago, we worked together on Orlando. That was a very new thing for me. Sykes also trained as a clown, and she uses that training. Not with big shoes and a red nose, but rather she tells stories in a light way. Including, and especially, the heaviest ones. In comparison, German theatre is often a real tractor. Above all she tells stories in a way that’s free of cynicism, naive. The theatre she makes is friendly. In German theatre circles that’s not very popular (there’s always this misunderstanding of our aspirations), but it’s all the more popular among audiences… We actors are often taught to scream at people, to teach them something, to hit them over the head. We like to assume that the audience is stupid. To put it very bluntly. Thanks to Lily Sykes I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with a very different perspective on the theatre. Things like that help me grow.

AW: And Queen Lear at the Maxim Gorki Theatre?
CH: I am looking forward to the style of performing the Gorki is developing, which is new to me. I will meet and get to know new colleagues as well.

AW: Isn’t that always the case?
CH: Since reunification I haven’t been a member of one theatre’s ensemble anywhere. At the time there was a very personal reason for that. Then I found out that it was the right thing for me anyway. I enjoy changing collectives. I didn’t know that before.

AW: Does King Lear depict a turning point?
CH: The play describes a situation in which everything is turned upside down. The terrible thing is that there are – except for Cordelia – no positive forces in that shift. Lear – whether King or Queen – isn’t that either. He hatched these serpents that go on to destroy everything. They are his work. Beyond their personal madness, their own desires, they are incapable of doing anything for others, much less wanting to build a society. In this play there is no utopia at all. That is the extreme escalation, if we’re not careful, that we’re headed toward today.

AW: No utopia at all?
CH: There is one buried in the play. But it isn’t very encouraging. When Lear is together with his friends and they have nothing left, then they’re free in a certain way. Free from their desires for power. They 
don’t have anything they believe they need to defend anymore. I feel it is a kind of utopia when the world stops for once. They come up with completely different ways of living. Until tragedy breaks into this life of fools and, in the end, they all die.

AW: You have a Syrian name, that of your first husband Nabil Harfouch, a computer scientist. What is your perspective on what’s happening in Syria?
CH: First of all, I am happy that my immediate family is now living in Canada. The news and images from Syria preoccupy me; they come alarmingly close to me. I recently watched For Sama, a documentary by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. You absolutely have to see it. Take a look in Arte’s media library. Sama is a baby, and the film tells the story of what is happening in Syria in order to show this baby, when she has grown up, the world she was born into. »Sama, I need you to understand what we were fighting for«, says Waad al-Kateab at one point. As we see the smiling face of a baby. Images of the revolution, shaky recordings with a handheld camera. You see the people exhale. You see their belief in the possibility of a good life. Then the war: bombs, explosions and the dead. Children are killed, children are born. The camera is always very close up. This film shakes me back and forth.

AW: Did you cry when you watched the film?
CH: A lot, and again and again. During the bombing Waad al-Kateab has two children. Often I thought, I cannot watch anymore of this. But then I said to myself, this is the absolute minimum, that you endure the shock of this film. You must not run away.

(from the season brochure #24)