When Simon McBurney, Director of renowned British theatre company Complicité, directed Beware of Pityfor Schaubühne Berlin, it was the culmination of two decades of mutual admiration and discussion between him and Schaubühne Artistic Director Thomas Ostermeier.

Beware of Pity, Sydney Festival Beware of Pity . Photo © Gianmarco Bresadola

Settling on a project, however, took some doing. Ostermeier was keen on McBurney directing a Shakespeare and suggested various plays including The Merchant of Venice.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do Shakespeare abroad partly because, whenever I make a piece of theatre, selfishly, I want to get something out of it, I want there to be a meaning to why I’m doing the piece and so just simply to turn up and do a translation of a Shakespeare for me was to [direct] something specifically English within a German context, whereas what interests me is a question of German culture,” says McBurney.

Then he saw Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel Ungeduld des Herzensor Beware of Pityin a book shop and read it in one sitting. “I was completely gripped by it and I thought ‘there’s...