The Arsonists

Max Frisch, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton

Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

(2007)

Review by Philip Fisher

Dominic Cooke has programmed this 1958 absurdist vision from Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch to run in rep with Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

Popular comic writer Alistair Beaton has chosen what is, at least the fourth, and almost certainly the most prosaic title that has been attached to this play. Its German name was the tongue-twisting Biedermann und die Brandstifter, on its premiere at the Royal Court in 1961 it was called The Fireraisers, while the Americans preferred The Firebugs.

There are distinct similarities between these two Court comedies that share an ensemble, although the continuity has slipped a little as Jasper Britton has dropped out, leaving Will Keen to step into the leading role. Both are parables that seem to be about totalitarian societies in which the innocent stand by as anarchy grows out of control, when, had they taken action rather than appeasing bullies, they might have made a difference.

The opening is like a scene from Truffaut's film version of Fahrenheit 451 crossed with the Keystone Cops. A Greek chorus of firemen introduces us to a country that is terrorised by arsonists but, as the fire-fighters assert, protected by their diligence.

The action then moves into a modern, white living room stylishly created by Anthony Ward for Gottlieb Biedermann (played by Keen) and his wife Babette (Jacqueline Defferary). He is a highly-strung businessman who has made his fortune from hair restorer, though he appears to favour a wig.

This fractious individual with a significant name, as Biedermann is the German translation of Bourgeois, doesn't greatly like his fellow man. His misanthropy manifests itself both in the harsh dismissal of an employee who subsequently sticks his head in a gas oven and a lack of enthusiasm for a mystery visitor.

The latter is former wrestler Schmitz played by Paul Chahidi. Biedermann's fear seems reasonable when you see his shabby but threatening visitor but even more so in a city fearful of arsonists.

However, the host and his wife, together with their resentfully pouting maid Anna (Zawe Ashton), make the most of a bad job and give the homeless man some victuals and an attic corner on top of the main set.

In no time, Schmitz has shipped in half a dozen big barrels of petrol and his chum, Benedict Cumberbatch's Eisenring, an out of work waiter still in uniform.

As the Chorus rhythmically tells us, as if it wasn't obvious, they are arsonists. However, Biedermann prefers to see good in them and accepts their tall tales rather than raising the alarm; and even protects them even when a policeman sniffs trouble. The consequences are inevitably explosive.

Ramin Gray's 90-minute production has the threatening feel of Pinter's The Birthday Party as two guests put fear into the hearts of the incumbents but with Ionesco's wider outlook that allows us to view the anarchists at large in society.

Max Frisch's target in The Arsonists is most likely to be the selfish businessman who sends an employee to a lonely death, then, like so many respectable citizens in Germany during the 1930s, turns his back on a threat to society.

However, there seems to be something lacking in this quite entertaining but not wholly meaningful version. It could be the epilogue to the play that has been lopped off by Alistair Beaton, in which Biedermann is seen on a visit to Hell where he has to defend himself against the Devil.