Marieluise

Kerstin Specht, translated by Rachael McGill
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
(2004)

Erica Whyman's swansong as artistic director of the Gate Theatre is the winner of the 2004 Revelations Translation Award. It is a beautiful, short piece about Germany in the first half of the 20th century and, more specifically, the playwright Marieluise Fleisser.

Her history is that of her country and its culture. She was an intimate of Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger and like them watched the arrival of Adolf Hitler with fear.

With the assistance of designer Soutra Gilmour, Miss Whyman has transformed the Gate into a German cabaret venue of the Thirties, complete with proscenium arch and mismatched chairs.

This contributes to an excellent sense of period that throws the audience back to the decadence and squalor famously depicted by the likes of Christopher Isherwood and George Grosz.

Marieluise consists of 22 scenes averaging three minutes apiece. These begin with Marieluise, feelingly played by the excellent Catherine Kanter, creating a puppet show for her peers, the children of the neighbourhood.

The plot then follows her through convent to a stream of lovers including an eccentric Red Indian, Brecht, a Danube swimmer and - lastly but certainly not happily - an indolent Nazi sympathiser.

The play depicts not only her quest for love but also for artistic recognition. She struggles against a male-dominated establishment and is both helped and hindered by the pig-headed Bertolt Brecht. His initial championing allowed her first work Purgatory in Ingolstadt to make it to the stage when she was a mere 25 but subsequently, he got her into trouble directing later work.

From there, it was all downhill until eventually, she landed up forgotten, in a mental institution. Happily, by the end of her life in the early 1970s she had been taken up by Fassbinder and Kroetz and once again was a prominent figure in the artistic world.

It is easy to see why Rachael McGill won the Revelations Translation Award for this work, it is beautifully judged and often very poetic and imagistic. She is greatly assisted by her director who, using techniques familiar to fans of Complicite and Shared Experience, depicts Marieluise's life in a variety of non-naturalistic ways. As well as the puppetry, there are strange dream sequences and best of all, the Blue Danube comes to life on stage, courtesy of Slovenian actress and talented cabaret dancer, Yana Yanezic.

It is a compliment to suggest that though the play lasts little more than an hour, it feels twice that length because there is so much empathy with its protagonist, not to mention entertaining action, packed in.

For anyone interested in the period, good writing and directing or somebody that should be a feminist icon, Marieluise is a must.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher