One of the defining novels of the 20th Century, Günter Grass’ THE TIN DRUM is brought to theatrical life on the Everyman Theatre’s stage by Kneehigh, the inventive production company behind the hugely entertaining ‘Beggar’s Opera’ Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs). With their latest venture, Kneehigh take a turn towards the darker side of human nature.
Grass’ 1959 book is a story for troubled times. On his third birthday, anti-hero Oskar Matzerath rejects a future that displeases him by deciding to remain a child forever. Using his birthday present of a tin drum, and armed with a singing voice that can shatter glass, Oskar sets out to reveal the world for what it truly is. Cath Bore spoke to the play’s writer Carl Grose, who teamed up with Kneehigh’s Artistic Director Mike Shepherd, and composer Charles Hazlewood, to create a production that’s part Baroque opera, part psychedelic white-out, part epic poem.
The Tin Drum is a classic of post-World War II literature, but why did Kneehigh choose to interpret this novel in particular?
We were looking for an idea that was of the same ilk as Dead Dog: [something] that was theatrical and political, and also had a similar kind of strong musical angle. I suggested Tin Drum on my memory of the film actually, rather than the book. You’re in the presence of this unreliable narrator [Oskar]; you never quite know if what he is talking about is true or real. That’s the interpretive beauty of it being a book of literature, whereas the film has to nail everything down. It did it in a very brilliant way, but the joy of doing this is that we’ve tried to make it as un-literal as possible. We have our Oskar narrating it and it’s got a metaphorical quality.
The book is broadly concerned with reflecting the rise of fascism during the author’s youth; Günter Grass was 17 when the Second World War ended. What parallels do you see to 2017, and how have you shown them?
We started working on it about two and a half years ago, and myself and Mike [Shepherd] were saying, ‘This is going to be great because we’ll tell this story about the rise of the far right as a kind of warning…’ Certainly, with the [EU] Referendum vote the lid was blown off something, which gave permission for this monster to roar out into the world. What became quite interesting when adapting this book was this folkloric character. She’s called the Black Cook – she’s called the Black Witch in our version – she’s a nursery rhyme bogeyman. Oskar sees this character as a shadow falling all across the land, and we ally it to fascism. The whole show is seen through his eyes and how he starts to understand the world. That seemed a very powerful thing, this shadow that has fallen.
Have you set the production during the 1940s, or brought it into a contemporary setting?
It’s not historically accurate, we didn’t want Nazis running around! It felt too literal to go down that route. The book is a historical telling of this time in history, and because it’s from Oskar’s point of view there’s a folkloric world to it as well. It’s an oral poem and a folk tale, very much set in its own world. It is set in the past and it is set in Europe, but we’ve got our own rules: we’ve done away with historical accuracy!
Oskar aged three, upon hearing his father’s plans for him to be a grocer, decides that growing up is simply not for him. Eternal childhood sounds like a rather appealing state.
It was a fascinating thing to explore. When I was writing the show, my little boy was three, the same age as Oskar. Watching him and seeing the world revolve around him – and it does, when you’re that age, you can scream like Oskar screams. You don’t know, in the book, if he’s having a tantrum, and [when] he shatters glass in a cathedral, is it just a kid at that age? Or is it a metaphor? It’s interesting to me, the notion of a kid that rejects the adult world, and sees hypocrisy and conformity at such a young age. When he throws himself down the stairs intentionally and stops himself from growing he has all the world at his command, but as the story progresses he realises as he grows from the inside, he’s cursed himself. You have to grow up. Life makes you, forces you.
The book was seen as scandalous at the time it was published. The 1979 film version was labelled as little more than child pornography. How did you deal with the sexual elements of Oskar’s story?
We’ve gone non-literal with it. Oskar is a puppet! A very beautiful, odd looking, but very articulate puppet. We do the scene with Maria (who Oskar falls in love with) where she gives him this fizzy powder, like a sweet. He thinks he’s had sex with her, and that her son Kurt – who is obviously his dad Alfred’s son – he thinks he’s his. We don’t go as far as the film does. But it’s in there. We were looking at the scene yesterday, and it’s definitely got a different vibe to it. Some people said it was disturbing [laughs], others moving. It does a number of different things. Which we quite like.
Oskar reminds me in a way of the Seth MacFarlane film Ted, about the extremely horny teddy bear.
The parallels are there! Oskar reminds me of the baby in Family Guy. He’s intelligent and observes the world, the adults are idiots but no one can hear him…
Günter Grass was member of the Waffen-SS, the military arm of the Nazi party, merely the result, some theorists say, of an idle teenager’s curiosity. Nevertheless, he was accused of hypocrisy when his past was revealed nearly 50 years after The Tin Drum was published. What are your thoughts as regards him writing the novel, in this context?
Certainly, as a debut novel The Tin Drum is a work of fevered genius. He was obviously trying to communicate something, while tussling with one of the most horrific events in history. And he did it I think in a very brave way. It’s what inspires us with the show, to be brave and try and be honest and not preach about things, but try and tell a story about now.
You worked closely with composer Charles Hazlewood on this project. He wrote the music, you the words. Does this make you a songwriter now, do you think?
You know what, I guess it would! With Dead Dog it was, ‘We’ve just written a musical!’ With this, it was, ‘We’ve written an opera!’ Which is pretty cool.
Artistic Director Mike Shepherd has said that the play is full of hope. But in the book, Oskar ends up in a mental asylum…
The book is pretty relentless. We thought… we’ve got to show the hope and beauty in things. At the moment he [Oskar] was born, the first thing he sees is a moth fluttering about a light bulb, and this is a recurring image throughout the book. It changes its significance in the book, but for us it became an image of fragility: about life and the world. Oskar goes through this extraordinary story, he screams and shatters glass, uses his tin drum to protest against the world, and he makes a lot of noise and the people around him make a lot of noise. Then, right at the very end, he remembers this image of fragility which kind of saves him, really. He has a future. We gave him a happy ending… a realistic ending!
The Tin Drum shows at the Everyman Theatre between 28th September and 14th October.