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Interview: Oliver Reese, Artistic Director of Berliner Ensemble talks about 'Sarah' at The Coronet Theatre

Image: Photo of Oliver Reese, Artistic Director on Berliner Ensemble.

Returning to The Coronet Theatre following his sold-out production of The Tin Drum, Berliner Ensemble Artistic Director Oliver Reese has now adapted the cult novel ‘The Sarah Book’ by Scott McClanahan. The monologue, performed by acclaimed actor Jonathan Slinger (RSC’s The Histories, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Absolute Hell), showcases the life of a middle-aged American man in contemporary West Virginia, in a wonderfully funny and poignant portrait of a crumbling American dream.


Ralph Barker: Tell us about the decision to stage The Sarah Book. What was it about the story that captivated you?

Oliver Reese: I was captivated not only by the story, but by the writing; the language and the humour. Both are so specific and rare. It’s really a book about the kind of lost soul that is created by modern society. We feel sorry for Scott, the character – although he has also become a major problem for his family. It’s a story close to our lives.


Ralph: What was it like working with Jonathan Slinger?

Olivier: Great! I had expected to encounter problems between the European and British style of working, but with Jonathan there were none. I think he’s a really great actor, who’s willing to show us his soul on stage, something that is especially rare in men.


Ralph: What challenges would you say there are with performing a one-man play?

Oliver: I’ve done so many one-actor-shows, and I love doing them. The process is a challenge for both actor and director, as you’re working so closely together. The biggest obstacle, however, is finding the reason behind why the character is talking so much. For the audience, being addressed so directly during a one-man show can be a really trilling experience. 


Ralph: How resonant are the themes of the play to both the self and society? Do you feel like there are certain elements of loss and suffering that could be said to echo the last few years of our fraught socio-political landscape?

Oliver: Scott McClanahan writes about the people who are forgotten by literature. The main character has the same name as the author – who has struggled with alcoholism, divorce, and difficulties with his children, just as his literary alter ego does. In this sense, the book is very much about modern society.


Image: Jonathan Slinger performing in 'Sarah'

Ralph: Your work tends to lean toward adaptations of biographical text rather than pure fiction or fantasy. What draws you to these kinds of stories?

Oliver: Indeed, I find that our life writes great drama, but to bring an autobiographical text to the stage, the language needs to be compelling and unique. Because of this, even truly horrifying subjects such as Joseph Goebbels’ 10,000-page diary can trigger my dramatic sense.


Ralph: The Sarah Book has been described as “an unsparing primal scream of a book”. Do you agree with this sentiment, and how do you hope to translate this power to the stage?

Oliver: For me, the main character speaks too much, and with too much humour and irony for the novel to be accurately compared to a scream. He is however evidently a very desperate character, existing within a story about the struggle of life and the ways in which we ultimately try to rescue ourselves. The lowest point is when Scott lies drunk and aggressive in the arms of his very own kids. Here, he finally understands that he has to change his life. In the end, therefore, there is also a substantial amount of hope in the story.

Image: Jonathan Slinger performing in 'Sarah'

Ralph: Speaking of power, there is an emotional urgency in your work that is expressed through intense performance. How do you bring out these challenging extremes in the actors you work with?

Oliver: I always go with the energy that I discover in the material I’m working with. Personally, I try to lead my life being kind to the people that surround me. Theatre is a great place to fight your own demons…


Ralph: Finally, can you tell us more about what’s next for the Berliner Ensemble? 

Oliver: As the Berliner Ensemble was Brecht’s house, I will create a special form of lyric poetry and songs and biographical notes from the great Bertolt Brecht. I also love comedy. In two years, I will produce Noises Off by Michael Frayn, certainly one of the funniest comedies ever written. Harking back to Coronavirus, it is about the fight to let theatre happen, even under weirdest circumstances.


Sarah runs until Saturday 17th December at The Coronet Theatre, with tickets starting from £10. To book, head to 

Image: Jonathan Slinger performing in 'Sarah'


About Oliver Reese:

Oliver Reese was born in 1964 in Schloss Neuhaus near Paderborn. After studying Modern German Literature, Theatre Studies and Comparative Literature in Munich, he worked as an assistant director at Münchner Kammerspiele, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel, where he took the position of dramaturg in 1989. In 1991, he was appointed head dramaturg at Theater Ulm. From 1994 to 2001, Reese was head dramaturg at Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin. Following this, he was appointed head dramaturg and deputy artistic director of Deutsches Theater Berlin (DT) by artistic director Bernd Wilms. During his time at DT, he worked with directors like Hans Neuenfels, Robert Wilson, Michael Thalheimer and Jürgen Gosch. In 2008, Deutsches Theater was voted to be Theatre of the Year. During the 2008/2009 season, Reese was DT’s interim artistic director and the theatre was invited to present Jürgen Gosch’s production of “Die Möwe (The Seagull)” at the Berlin Theatertreffen. From 2009 to 2017, Reese was artistic director of Schauspiel Frankfurt. During his tenure there, he raised the audience number to record levels with a repertory that ranged from the classics to the most recent contemporary drama. After eight years at Schauspiel Frankfurt, Oliver Reese took up his position as artistic director of Berliner Ensemble from the 2017/18 season. This marked his return to Berlin, where he had previously created theatre for 15 years.


About the Berliner Ensemble:

Berliner Ensemble is one of the most renowned and long-standing theatres in Germany. Named after Bertolt Brecht’s world-famous company, Berliner Ensemble has written theatre history. Throughout its 125-year history, the theatre on Schiffbauerdamm has always addressed issues of current social relevance, and from the 2017/18 season, the beginning of Oliver Reese’s tenure as Artistic Director, Berliner Ensemble once again places a stronger focus on contemporary texts and topics.

In the tradition of its former Artistic Directors, Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller, and under its new director Oliver Reese, Berliner Ensemble directs its attention on theatre that reflects upon our present times. Beside works by Bertolt Brecht, the repertoire features current topics and contemporary plays by living authors examining the urgent issues of our times on stage.

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