Monday, October 26, 2009

The Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner, translated by Martin Crimp, Cottesloe Theatre, 21-Oct-2009 – Directed by Katie Mitchell.

Katie Mitchell seems to have developed the habit of using naturalistic lighting (i.e. the scene is almost entirely lit from onstage props) and having actors talk at a normal conversational volume. In a tiny studio space it would work perfectly but in a larger space I don't think it is good, clever or artistic to do it. This “habit” ruined her production of Women of Troy for me (I was in the Lyttelton sitting 12 or so rows back) and yet the play was continually praised by at least one national critic as one of the greatest things she had seen. Katie Mitchell got away with the “habit” in this Cottesloe-based production, in fact it worked quite well, but I was sitting only four rows from the stage, feeling very glad I wasn't at the back of the upper gallery.
The play is about a group of medical students in Vienna in the early 1920s. Part of a defeated nation and dissolved empire they consider the alternatives of a stifling bourgeois life or suicide. I only found there to be one sympathetic character in the play he had served a prison term for manslaughter. The most vibrant characters were an aristocratic young woman (Desiree played by Lydia Wilson) and her pimp (and an attempted rapist) of an ex-lover (Freder played by Geoffrey Streatfeild but there was no empathy from me for either of them. I found Freder particularly disturbing not because of his appalling actions but because the author seemed to want us to be convinced that he held a magnetic attraction for all the women in the play.
I had to wonder, watching this play, just how important a piece of drama it is supposed to be. This was because I didn't think that I was getting the most out of the play. Normally I would blame my own insensitivity but since at least six people didn't return after the interval, at least two people (on separate occasions) left while the play was happening and a couple behind me only seemed to be staying so they could complain to one another about it, it might not be entirely my fault.
I couldn't fault the actors, they all seemed good, nor did I think there was anything wrong with Martin Crimp's translation, it flowed well and didn't seem awkward. Katie Mitchell's direction also seemed fine, with some nice touches like the CSI/Men in Black figures who would change scenes by covering or uncovering furniture with dust sheets and taking or putting props in or out of plastic bags (sometimes in the middle of scenes), as if collecting evidence or staging a reconstruction. All the same I didn't think that I was really being sold this play.
I found myself checking the internet after the play to see how the play is viewed in mainland Europe. It appears that this play is well regarded but from what I could glean (courtesy of Google's Translate this Page link) but the few productions I read about did appear to be somewhat more adventurous and expressionistic. I began to wonder if, notwithstanding the People in Black, this production may have been too naturalistic; quietly intense and honest rather than artificially heightened and full of significant pauses. Of course this was a very early preview so it might have changed a lot by the time it is properly reviewed.


clare.r.bullock said...

I totally agree with you... we left the theatre wondering if there was something that we'd missed. I'm sure it was controversial at the time it was written, but I found it repetitive and boring. Judging by the amount of fidgeting and the number of people who vanished at the interval, I wasn't the only one!

Hard to get into a play in which all bar one of the characters are completely detestable.

paliokatina said...

One of the reasons why the play is so well regarded in central Europe is that people do not go to the theatre expecting - or wishing even- to "like" or "care" about the characters.Quite the opposite.
(For the same reason people don't go to Oedipus Rex in order to empathise...)
And of course foreign productions are expressionist in style (the correct style for this genre) - on the other side of the channel expressionism is not a "swearword" as it seems to be in the mouth of Anglo-Saxon reviewers. It IS an uneven - and perhaps dated - play , but, as far as I'm concerned, preferable to the trite, whingey naturalistic fare which most London actors and theatres seem to favour.

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