“Ohnsorg” – it’s the name of Hamburg’s Low German theatre and a keyword when talking about regional comedy. It made the Hamburg ‘Missingsch’ known throughout the republic, and it’s the favourite of grandparents all around town. What a crazy random happenstance that its founder’s name would also translate to ‘carefree’, as this is exactly what one expects when backs of the first few rows of a theatre audience become visible after the Tagesschau. These are the stories of working class people, earthy humour and authentic ‘Hamburger Schnack’ (none of your fancy, polished words, thank you very much).
In 2011, the theatre had to move into a new building. Changing location after 75 years is a risky business, especially when the majority of regulars are over 60. Thankfully, the Ohnsorg took its chance and did not only go through a change in location but also in attitude. The first season in the new house opened with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – ‘op platt’, of course. Most regulars welcomed the new spirit – or at least did not mind enough to stay away– but the critics were not quite as accepting, lamenting the loss of comedy and only slightly appeased by the workmen’s scenes. Bawdy humour: that was what vernacular was good for, after all.
With the new house, new spaces opened up and even though it may not be spacious, the studio stage has become a vital and vivacious forum for young and experimental Low German theatre. Without a podium or even a proper backstage area, the actors, and the technician as well as a maximum of 70 people in the audience share the space, blurring boundaries – if there even were any to begin with. One would expect the critics to faint at these atrocities, but it brings in a great number of the younger generations and wins over even the professional sticklers.
Dramaturge Cornelia Ehlers came from Oldenburg, heartland of all things ‘platt’, and is now in charge of the studio stage. She focuses on productions especially for children and young people. The three plays she has produced so far have been hugely successful, particularly with schools, even with those outside of Hamburg. They answer the grave need for relevant and engaging Low German theatre that has increased since the language was established as a subject in primary schools across Hamburg. The senate signed the European Union’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages over ten years ago, and the language has only now started to make its way slowly into secondary schools. In providing content outside of grammar books, the Ohnsorg theatre offers valuable assistance to the budding subject. Teachers benefit not only from plays highlighting issues like death, acceptance, and purpose of life, as well as the language, but also from workshops in which Ehlers herself gives them advice and hands-on training on how to cover the plays in the classroom.
Ehlers, a native speaker of Low German herself, translates her chosen pieces personally. In this she follows a bilingual approach that adds another dimension to the plays: The language choices reflect on characters and situations, and disperse the potentially incomprehensible vernacular with the familiar standard language. Hamburg has always been home to a diverse array of people, and deciding on High German as the common denominator, the community of native Low German speakers has been continuously shrinking. Many of the classes who visit the Ohnsorg have a high percentage of immigrant students. Surprisingly, they understand the Low German parts of the plays remarkably well – and when they don’t, they are not afraid to take a guess. Ehlers feels that bilingualism is particularly helpful to those children and young people that have grown up in a bilingual home themselves, even if their parents might speak Turkish and not ‘platt’.
I have had the absolute joy of witnessing the Ohnsorg’s adaptation of Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena”, a production originally targeted at young people, but I would recommend stretching that expression as far as you can. We meet Leonce, prince of Popo, and Lena, princess of Pipi, the two parties in an arranged marriage who don’t know each other and are not eager to change that, at least not if it only happens right before their vows. Consequently, they take off. Incidentally, they both end up in Italy. Eventually, they fall in love – and never even bother to exchange names.
The production took quite a few liberties in arranging it for only four actors, including writing an original framework plot. Two wedding planners get wind of the planned marriage and resolve to make it happen, taking on the roles of the play’s supporting characters. Scenery and props are minimalistic but used so cleverly that it is a delight to watch, and attention to detail is certainly rewarded.
The language mix works incredibly well, building on historical and contemporary connotations of the Low German vernacular: Leonce and Lena speak High German – they are educated but nonetheless without purpose; the supporting characters speak dialect – they are down to earth, spirited and subjects to their masters’ wishes. The opposition does not feel artificial and the easiness with which the actors speak, even though they only learned Low German for their roles, is refreshing and infectious.
The actors’ unbroken presence and thorough commitment to their characters drives the audience to experience true worry for their physical well-being. One is drawn out of the safe space of reality, the staged reality takes its place and demands to be felt.
Büchner wrote this play when he was not much older than twenty. He handed it in for a contest, missed the deadline and it did not premiere until several decades later – I can identify with this. I can also identify with Leonce’s existentialist boredom and Lena’s poetic cluelessness. I had a dumb grin on my face throughout the play, and I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed any performance as much as this one. In the end, I realized that I had watched myself, live in a velvet padded cell, and I cannot wait for the next time I will be able to laugh so heartily not despite, but because of my sadness.
Oh, the joy of in-your-face-performances and locally rooted storytelling you can identify with.
But now you ask: Why exactly do we need to make such an effort the preserve a dying* language? Is it nostalgia? Propaganda? A bureaucratic cul-de-sac too narrow for a u-turn? I could draw up a fancy argument, using expressions like globalization, identity and the digital age. But in the spirit of Low German authenticity, I will try and not use any words that I might not even understand too well myself.
There are fewer people who are actually able to speak Low German today than in the 1980s – but also less who do not know it at all. ‘Platt’ is homely, authentic, relaxed and understanding. A swearword in the dialect is likely to come across as less harsh, and a hearty “moin moin” is more welcoming than its standard counterpart. In times when we are required to be a “citizen of the world” before we are a citizen of our home town and being fluent in at least one foreign language is valued more highly than understanding your own grandparents’ dialect, we are looking for something to keep us grounded, anchored, even if we use our home port as a port of departure rather than a destination. Also, keeping in mind the expectations of a globalized market, you might want to know that children who were brought up with a dialect find it easier to learn a foreign language. You’re welcome. (And thank you, Ohnsorg theatre.)
*I’m sorry, Platt, my dear, I didn’t mean it, but I need to be provocative right now. I still love you!
Want to see for yourself now? “Leonce un Lena” will unfortunately not show again this season, but there are plans to bring it back in two season’s time. “Lütt Aant – Ente, Tod und Tulpe”, a bittersweet story of death and the joy of living based on a picture book, will show again in April. In May the Staatstheater Oldenburg will be a guest in Hamburg with “Flusspferde un anner Peer”, a play for children about beauty standards and being different. Although those plays are not exclusively for children and young people and will probably entertain an audience of all ages, there are also productions principally for adults: Neil LaBute’s “Fett Swien (Fat Pig)” has its premiere on 8 March, and in June it will get musical with “De Chorproov”.
More information on http://www.ohnsorg.de/
Tamara L. Nehls