Faith, Hope and Charity

Odön von Horváth, translated by Christopher Hampton
Leap Productions & Ros Terry
Southwark Playhouse
(2011)

Faith, Hope and Charity production photo

Faith Hope and Charity, which Horváth wrote in 1932, should have received its premier the following year but it was cancelled and all his work banned under the Third Reich . He subtitled the play "A Little Dance of Death in Five Acts" and this picture of the struggle to survive in the economic depression of the 20s and 30s, especially in post-war Germany, does indeed end in a death.

It seems a very timely revival with surprisingly topical references to state benefits and with its references and its main character caught in a spiral of debt and unemployment, lies and imprisonment. Leonie Kubigsteltig's production brings out a likeness to Brecht's way of making an audience see cause and effect rather than become too caught up by the characters' emotional journeys.

Designer Signe Beckmann places the action on a low wooden platform backed by shoji-like screens (the Japanese influence even extended to an abbreviated hanamichi walkway for characters to approach the stage from the audience vomitories) that forms a simple background against which furniture and properties stand clearly for each scene and Kubigstelig and her movement director Angela Gasparetto have devised action that extends a scene to provide a segue to covers the change into the next and establish a new opening point. This emphasises the theatricality of the presentation and the audience's role as observers.

This is a not a play about 'the workers'. Its central character is middle class Elisabeth, daughter of an insurance company claims inspector, though she just calls him 'an inspector' in the hope that people will think him a state official and put her a higher rung up the social ladder. She's already been on the wrong side of the law for trying to sell things without a licence but now she's got herself a job as a travelling saleswoman selling corsets and suspender belts. She is not making a success of it and hopes to raise some money by offering her body for post-mortem medical dissection. There are no takers but one of the dissectors lends her the money to buy a seller's licence - but she has already been given one by her employer and he finds out that she lied so she's back in court and sent to prison. A meeting with a kindly policeman who she moves in with gives a brief respite but when it is revealed she's been in prison his career comes under threat and so the downward spiral continues.

Rebecca Oldfield as Elisabeth gives her a charming naivety. She isn't up to clever scheming; it doesn't occur to her that she won't get away with her little deceptions and what the effect of discovery could be. Perhaps she really does just fail to tick the boxes for social service help and handouts but she is an object lesson in the need to understand the world you live in and how it works, political education in its most basic form.

The other characters too are marked by the level of their ability to understand the system and by the narrowness of their personal view: the Dissector (Julien Ball), for instance, who may be lucky enough to get promoted but whose life seems restricted to the menagerie he keeps at home; the Magistrate's wife (Penelope McGhie) who has a knack for selling corsets and a very jaundiced view of the way the law operates; the policeman lover (Jude Monk), in thrall to authority; the officious Chief Dissector (Roy Sampson) or the decadent Baron (Paul Bahattacharjee).

Everyone except Oldfield and Monk are playing multiple roles, cross gender in the case of Emmanuella Cole's Joachim and Helena Lymbery's 2nd policeman - both very effective decidedly masculine movement.

In the final scenes you inevitably begin to become more emotionally involved with the characters but Kubigsteltig ensures that you end up judging things with your head not with your emotions.

"Faith, Hope and Charity" runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 16th July 2011.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton