Count Oederland

Max Frisch, translated by Michael Bullock
Cerberus Theatre
Arcola Theatre

Count Oederlander, Cerberus Theatre
Count Oederlander, Cerberus Theatre

Swiss dramatist Max Frisch is best known in Britain for his plays The Fire Raisers and Andorra and this is apparently the first professional production here of his earlier play Count Oederland which premiered in Zurich in 1951.

It presents us with a stressed and overworked state prosecutor getting up in the middle of the night worrying if there is some point he has missed in his current case, that of a bank employee who has killed a colleague with an axe. The crime seems motiveless: there was an axe and there was this man and an explosion of frustration or exasperation in the victim’s life. The bank clerk has been at his boring job for years but he doesn’t understand the system. “Some people work to get money,” he says, “but some people get money to work for them… I’ve never seen money working!” It is a sentiment that many might share today when banker’s speculation leaves some with millions in their pockets but most of us are paying for it.

The lawyer (who oddly gets dressed in the middle of the night so that he can smoke a cigar, though perhaps that tells us more about mid-twentieth-century Swiss proprieties than the character’s mental state) has been told he ought to see a doctor, take a rest. He’s at breaking point and it seems to come when a servant girl comes in saying he called her and as she kindles a fire in the grate convinces him that he should burn all those papers he spends so long in reading.

How does he find himself in a forest, entering a woodcutter’s house where the daughter is obsessed with the folkloric axe-wielding Count Oederland. He chops off the woodcutter’s head and, taking on the persona of Oederland, sets off with the girl, who uncannily resembles his housemaid, becoming the figurehead for an underground movement against the ruling power in a police state society. Thousands who wear an axe badge beneath their lapel are not supporting the policies of a new political leader—this is raw rebellion.

There is no explanation, it just happens: unrest boils over and after a wave of unrest across the Arab world and strong reaction to developments in Europe and even anti-Wall Street demonstrations in the US this is a play which strikes home here perhaps more forcibly than it might have done had Kenneth Tynan got it presented, as he proposed, at the Olivier-run National Theatre. However, after early productions in Frankfurt and Berlin led to disorder, it was banned in Germany and apparently it still is in France.

Though in part a reaction against the orderliness of his home country (which the Prosecutor voices), this is a dramatic reminder that frustration and dissatisfaction cannot be bottled up forever; they boil over. It is a weirdly dislocated story, rather than a carefully worked out parable, that proceeds like a dream and, like a dream, you are distracted from the illogicalities by the detail: such as the woodcutters goat and 19 chickens and four plates. Near the end there seems to be confirmation that the Prosecutor has been dreaming until another twist suggests it may be a real living nightmare and leaves you with the power wielders, in the form of the President, about to take over and use the new leader who will carry on much as before.

Christopher Loscher’s production is staged on designer Mike Lee’s dazzling white ramped diamond backed by a montage of mug shots that could be electioneering politicians or wanted criminal posters. It is fluid and fast moving, its scenes punctuated by the ominously echoing drumbeats of Philippa Herricks sound composition. The wildly different styles of the playing, as actors double several parts, reflects the play’s structure. It ranges from Barra Collins’s extravagantly gesticulating clairvoyant to the baffled ordinariness of Christopher Birk’s murderer, Nesba Crenshaw’s champagne-fuelled Minister of the Interior to David Meyer’s grumpy woodcutter. Sometimes performances have the edge of caricature, but the first night audience was largely resisting responding to the comic elements that are clearly present.

Evelyn Adams brings the right mixture of innocence and evil to a succession of young girls who all seem to be the same one before ending up as a sophisticated siren, Natasha Alderslade is elegant and understanding as the Prosecutor’s wife and Jacob Trenerry a trifle sinister as her lover. As the Prosecutor himself, Simon Norbury is awkwardly edgy at first, as fits his state, but then smoothly ordinary despite his strange behaviour, which is just the way to make us accept it. He’s the only actor who isn’t doubling – but what a contrast to how I saw him last month as a hilarious Bollywood Dame.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton