Through the Leaves

Franz Xaver Kroetz translated by Anthony Vivis

Southwark Playhouse

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

Southwark Playhouse continues to amaze. It is a theatre with about 75 seats and it continues to draw the great and the good, both on and off-stage, as if it was on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Through the Leaves is a two-hander featuring superb performances by Simon Callow and Ann Mitchell under the direction of the American, Daniel Kramer.

Otto and Martha are an ill-matched couple. She is a speciality butcher who skins a rabbit onstage each night while metaphorically doing the same to herself. He is a cruel egotist who has firm views about a woman's place.

Within Soutra Gilmour's devastated set, the couple love and hate, show generally false bravado and demonstrate what close neighbours love, pride and loneliness can be.

Martha has been starved of love and obtains her satisfaction through the success of the business. It is surely no coincidence that the butcher's shop symbolically thrives in Otto's increasingly regular absences. When he is around, she melts and it is only her vicious-sounding dog, Ralphy, who will stand up to him.

Otto bullies Martha outrageously, knowing that she will put up with it. Finding a first love in her fifties, she does not want to lose him, no matter what he does. Ann Mitchell is very good at portraying the kind of woman who will allow herself to be battered, mentally and potentially physically, by a man that anyone else would regard as utterly without merit.

Simon Callow, last seen as a suave Dickens, gives a wonderfully physical performance as the uncouth Otto, his every facial tic adding to the impression. This man is insecure and dislikes the fact that Martha does a man's job and earns more than he does. This seems to be the main source of his disatisfaction although, despite his apparent love of himself, there is a self-loathing not too far beneath the surface.

The scenes of love and cruelty are interspersed with extracts from Martha's diary. She is hardly Bridget Jones but the need to find love is common to both. Franz Xaver Kroetz is German and despite some feel of Pinter's menace, it is hard to believe that any British playwright could have written a piece like this.

There may not be too much cheer in Kroetz's conclusion but he does strip two limited people bar, thus exploring the ways in which human beings will treat each other. He is greatly helped in this by Kramer and his two superb actors.