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Interlaken sets stage for William Tell anniversary

The Tell play is one of the main summer attractions in Interlaken Tellspiele

It is 200 years since Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell” was first performed and to mark the anniversary, Interlaken is putting on an extended version of its traditional open-air production of the drama.

This content was published on May 19, 2004 - 12:08

swissinfo went backstage for a sneak preview.

Director Monika Wild has to shout her stage instructions into a microphone in order to be heard by the nearly 200 amateur actors on the sprawling set in the Rugen wood.

An epic version of Schiller’s drama was first performed on the edge of this very wood in 1912, and has been staged uninterrupted since 1947.

On this evening in early May, Wild is directing a medieval market scene, a new element she has brought in to mark the 200th anniversary of the first ever performance of Schiller’s great work.

Festival atmosphere

The joyful scene lends the play a festival atmosphere. Musicians and dancers prance about in front of real wooden chalets, children play and peasant women sell their wares from carts.

The man who will be Schiller looks on. Wild introduced the German author as a character in his own play when she took over as director in 2001.

“Our version of the play is only two hours long compared to the original three and a half hours, so I chose to put Schiller on stage as the narrator to link the scenes,” Wild says.

“I’m thrilled to be playing Schiller during this anniversary year,” remarks amateur actor Peter Wenger. “But it’s not an easy role.

Schiller in attendance

“The story takes place in the Middle Ages but Schiller lived 200 years ago, which means his character has to behave differently from the other figures.”

In the Interlaken production, Schiller – who in real life never visited Switzerland – travels to the central Swiss village of Altdorf where the story unfolds.

He hires a room in an inn where he writes the play and then looks on, sometimes as narrator and occasionally taking the direction into his own hands.

As he talks, Wenger is constantly interrupted by other actors who greet him as they pass by on their way to the stage.

“We do it because we enjoy being outdoors and because we like the theatre, but also because it’s fun being part of one big family,” says Alfred Horisberger, now in his 29th season with about 540 performances under his belt.

Longevity

“Some of the performers started when they were children and are still taking part well into old age,” he continues, explaining that others have been involved longer.

This summer, Horisberger is Baron von Attinghausen. But over the years he has also played Kuoni the herdsman, Hans auf der Mauer, Walter Furst and Werner Stauffacher.

He was Stauffacher, one of Switzerland’s founding fathers and the character with the most lines in the play, for nine years.

“I haven’t played Stauffacher since the 1994 season but I still know all his lines off by heart!”

Horisberger says taking part in the production has strengthened his patriotic feelings for Switzerland.

Patriotism

“William Tell was a real person, but we don’t know if he really accomplished the feats attributed to him.

“But there’s good reason why William Tell plays such an integral role in Swiss history,” Horisberger adds.

“Every Swiss citizen should know the story of how he defended his people against oppressive Hapsburg rule.”

The burly and bearded man who has been Interlaken’s William Tell for 14 years is, like Horisberger, also waiting in the wings.

He passes the time horsing around with the boy who plays his son. He shows him how to aim the crossbow.

“I’m not really a good shot,” Tell admits, smiling.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Interlaken

In brief

Friedrich Schiller’s play, William Tell, was first performed in the German town of Weimar, where the writer lived, exactly 200 years ago.

The Tell play is performed every year in the Bernese Oberland resort of Interlaken and in the central Swiss town of Altdorf, where much of the story takes place.

Interlaken puts on an open-air spectacle, with nearly 200 amateur actors in period costume, horses and cattle. The show runs from mid June to early September.

A new adaptation of the drama is put on stage each year in Altdorf, where performances in the Tell playhouse date back to the latter half of the 19th century. This year’s production will premiere on August 14.

For five weeks from July 24, a troupe from Germany’s national theatre will come to Switzerland to mark the anniversary by performing the play on the Rütli Meadow, the birthplace of the Swiss confederation.

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