Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig, in a version by Simon McBurney, James Yeatman, Maja Zade and the Ensemble

Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin

Barbican Theatre

From 09 February 2017 to 12 February 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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This two-hour long co-production between Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin epitomises the kind of avant-garde work that the Barbican has sought to champion in the last decade or more.

Simon McBurney directs a German-language ensemble in an unusual stage version of Stefan Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity, which follows the fortunes of a young Austro-Hungarian lieutenant, played by Christoph Gawenda, in the early years of the 20th century.

The little social difficulty in which he finds himself could happen to anybody, which is this piece’s greatest strength. Having managed to get an invitation to a party given by swanky socialites, the young man does not put a foot wrong throughout the evening until realising that inadvertently, he has failed to ask the daughter of the house to dance.

Only after he has made his request does the lieutenant discover that the girl is crippled and devastated by what appears a cruel joke at her expense.

This faux pas would be embarrassing for anybody in any era, but in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was apparently far more damaging, threatening a worthy man’s reputation.

The remainder of the evening largely consists of his attempts to right this terrible wrong, step-by-step digging himself further into trouble.

To add an additional twist to the story, like Stefan Zweig himself, the girl’s illustrious and now very disappointed father, is a Jew, and as a direct consequence looked down upon in polite circles.

The plot itself builds to an almost inevitable ending, although considerable spice is added by the timing, which leaves its closure occurring simultaneously and symbolically with another kind of ending, as Gavrilo Princip assassinates the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, leading to the start of the Great War.

Simon McBurney has decided to relate this tale in a very disjointed if modish style, leading to a risk that the direction begins to overwhelm the underlying story.

Realism is never allowed to impinge for long, although the lieutenant, unlike all of his fellows, does at least dress in stylish period costume.

Otherwise, bits of drama are filmed and projected onto a large screen, often for example hands being shot from one person at the same time as voices from another help to complete personality, while commentary and sound effects appear from strange directions.

As such, events can look a bit like a well-spaced rehearsal and draw attention away from the plights of both the young lieutenant and the girl whom he has offended and desperately attempts to placate.

Fans of this kind of presentation will undoubtedly lap up Beware of Pity, while other viewers might struggle to take in both the wordy surtitles needed for those that are not German speakers and the sometimes incongruous visual effects. Either way, the plot itself is strong and moving.