Improbable - The Paper Man (Foto: Martin Hauer)
What may sound like a straightforward story about football and Nazis turns out to be so much more. Laying bare the layers of society, of patriarchy and white privilege, The Paper Man playfully questions predominant narratives and power structures.
The Paper Man, a production by the renowned UK theatre company Improbable, attempts to tell the story of Matthias Sindelar, an Austrian football star who is said to have defied the Nazi regime by winning with his “Wunderteam” against Germany after the Anschluss in 1938. It was the last match as an independent Austrian team before it was to be integrated in Nazi Germany. Not long after the “Anschlussspiel”, Sindelar died under mysterious circumstances.
The story seems to have all the suspense and action that would make for a Hollywood blockbuster; however, instead it takes a different turn. With the bare stage, apart from one rather massive cross-like extendable structure, The Paper Man makes clear from the very outset that this is not going to be a traditional theatre production with a clear-cut plot, stock characters or dramatic arc. The three British actresses Vera Chok, Jess Mabel Jones and Anna-Maria Nabirye with their diverse backgrounds not only form counter-discourses to Lee Simpson’s white, male narrative, taking into account the female perspective as well as racial issues. The performers also question the very nature of the narrative and ask in how far a story depends on who is telling it, how the story is changed by the storyteller and what story is needed to be told, insisting that “We don’t need a story about another dead white man”.
The Paper Man wonderfully interweaves all these questions and story fragments in a free-floating, intuitive and loosely knit web of a performance that includes improvisation, shadow theatre, a round of questions and audience participation. This highly self-referential mosaic of bits and pieces of stories, football facts and raw emotion is held together by the theme of football and the story of Sindelar, which is forcefully accentuated by Adrienne Quartly’s sound design, who also contributes her own story to the play.
Matthias Sindelar was called the Paper Man, in original German “Der Papierene”, because of his slight build. The element paper reappears throughout the performance metaphorically as well as literally. White paper is used as the canvas for shadow plays that represent the settings of a Viennese coffee house, a club in London or mirror the diverse, multi-layered structure and story of the play through dynamic light fragments. White paper, however, is also being related to the dominant patriarchal and racial structures of society, in which counter-cultures and marginalised groups navigate and have to struggle to be heard. At one point in the show, one member of the cast states, “I tell my story on blank white paper”, thereby referring to a society created and dictated by white men.
While The Paper Man desperately (and purposefully) fails to tell Sindelar’s story, it accomplishes to create far more. The story of Sindelar is only the front that sparks what becomes a fiercely honest and playfully courageous confrontation with and re-negotiation of some of the sore spots of society, that is, the issues of race and gender and subsequently of discourse, narratives and art itself. So, how does a story end when the rules of the narrative are laid down by a different storyteller? Well, we dance; we dance to get to know each other.
The Paper Man opened at Norfolk and Norwich Festival in England, UK in May 2018 and performed at La Strada Festival in Graz, Austria on 1st and 2nd August this year. In early 2019, the show will tour the UK, including 4 weeks at the Soho Theatre, London, 11th February – 8th March 2019.