Friday 4 December 2009

A small, icy cloud of threat

Pains of Youth, National Theatre (Cottesloe), London

In a student pension in Vienna in 1923, a group of young, well-read, educated friends try to wrestle with the sickness of the world they perceive, with their own disaffections, and with the power relations that they design between each other. Marie and Desiree are going through medical school; straight away, we sense that they come from a different, higher social milieu than both Petrell, the wannabe writer who is Marie’s boyfriend at the beginning of the events, and the bitter, cerebral Irene. Then there are Lucy, the maid of the pension, with her superficial shyness, and the more demonic Freder, who is the most explicitly corrupting character, but perhaps neither more nor less detachedly evil than all the others - Geoffrey Streatfield plays him with just the right amount of hyper-controlled American psycho. Finally, we have the ascetic and philosophical Alt.

Sexual interests, obsessions of control and morbid romance are weaved in several directions between all these boys and girls, crossing over genders and reciprocity, as alliances get destroyed and reconstructed. They are all the same and yet very different. But if the first part of the play sees them conflicting over actual arguments, throwing accusations of ambition at each other - the latter taking on a negative shade that is very much a social class judgement, still so detectable in England today – the second part slides into an overall atmosphere of malaise. In the meantime, between the scenes, professional-looking men and women in corporate black suits come and go, accompanied by flashing and buzzing lights; they wrap up some objects in plastic sheets, and place others in the hands of the characters, performing the opposite yet equal action of a forensic investigator - rather than collecting the proofs afterwards, they instigate the crimes by providing the evidence-to-be.

Their presence echoes the scientific attention to detail thanks to which Martin Crimp’s new version of Ferdinand Bruckner’s play does not become a shouted, hair-tearing showdown between hysterical teenagers, maintaining instead all the complexity of its original context and the neurosis it induces.  Bruckner’s text is profoundly rooted in its time, and this production underlines its specificity through a range of indications: we have the references to Javanese dance and Swedish gymnastics, the twelve-tone music, the aesthetic of Marie and Desiree’s taste, encapsulated into John Bright’s costumes, and Vicki Mortimer’s precisely Jugendstil set. The years and the surroundings determine the events: maybe a few years earlier, or a few years later, these young people would have had the possibility of believing in, respectively, the fundamental goodness of the rules they had to abide to, or the real opportunity of changing them. But for this particular generation, as Desiree perfectly puts it, there is only ‘bourgeois existence or suicide: there is no other option’.

One can see how Bruckner’s darkness, his sense that a moment of unspeakable horror is just one word (or a few years) away, lends itself well to Martin Crimp’s style, and is amplified by it and by Katie Mitchell’s beautifully sharp and pure direction. There is a constant, implicit suggestion of violence, underlined and heightened by Paul Clark’s music; whenever characters speak, a small, icy cloud of threat accompanies their words. Even the simple and innocuous act of putting makeup on someone mutates into a menacing image of constriction, overload with a tension that is not quite sexual, but rather obscene. Everything is tainted by a sense of depravity.

These maniacally depressive bons viveurs, with their particularly sophisticated decadence made of chocolates in tiny boxes and silk pijamas at dinner parties, seem to be permanently bound towards one of those Dostoevskian scenes of boiled-up shame and humiliation, but in the more modern and minimalistic version that is so frequent in Stefan Zweig’s novellas - Zweig’s diary is interestingly quoted from in the programme, accompanied by the picture, recently made familiar, of him and his wife on their deathbed, after their conjoined suicide. This is partly why as soon as the primordial prescription barbiturate, Veronal, is mentioned,  we all know where we are heading.

We also know, of course, where this whole generation was heading, what the culmination of this subdued horror would be. The fact that this is never once made obvious, yet is always intelligently implied, is just one of the merits of this excellent production.


Till 21 January 2010


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