Franz Xavier Kroetz, translated by David Scheider
Having only recently returned to London, this was my first visit to the Arcola Theatre and I have made a pleasing discovery. The foyer is large, appropriately unpretentious and very welcoming. The performance area itself is large for a fringe venue, a basic black box construction that allows for considerable flexibility. And, isn't it wonderful to find a theatre in Dalston, somewhat off the beaten track, doing a season of German playwrights rather that trying to put bums on seats with more a more conventional menu? Isn't it a sign that the fringe in London is really vibrant and willing to take risks? I intend to go back to the Arcola for more.
Kroetz was initially grouped together with writers working out of Munich, referred to as the Bavarian playwrights because they were dealing with issues that pertained predominantly to the region's culture: an agrarian culture, a centre, in the past, of support for Hitler's Nazis, utterly conservative. Unlike his contemporary, Botho Strauss, probably Germany's most popular playwright, Kroetz seems to be more accessible to British audiences. The production of These Barren Leaves, a truly fine play, chalked up a considerable success at the Southwark playhouse recently. He is most frequently seen as a realist playwright, a misconception to which director Elen Bowman has given little credence. While this is a play that deals with domestic breakdown, under external social pressure, Bowman has stylised the piece. This, of itself, warmed the cockles of my heart.
The set, a simple black-lined square pit surrounded by a raised level is aptly conceptual. Most of Kroetz's characters seem to have been born into, or worked themselves into, a rut from which they can only emerge after they have been precipitated into a crisis. The costumes are simple and white. The cast deal with the text thoughtfully, and Kroetz can be compared to Mamet in his paring down of text to reach the essentials while injecting it with invigorating sub-text. But Kroetz is not Mamet: he is not merely a realist playwright (nor, incidentally, can he be compared to Mamet, because he is not a misogynist!)
However, I must make one caveat. The set seemed to me to inhibit the actors' physicality, and, if you have ever seen Kroetz performed in German, there is a fierce, if stylised, but equally passionate physicality. The actors seemed to be trapped within this pit to the detriment of their physical acting. I also felt after my initial appreciation, that the set was too stark. It could have done with a few symbolic accoutrements that would bring colour and an added layer of signification to the entirety.
Nonetheless, as the tension builds, and I don't want to give anything away that might detract from the element of surprise, some very special things start to happen, unusual in the British theatre tradition, that are a credit to the insights of both director and designer.
I spent twenty-two years of my life living on the 'European Continent'. I am so delighted that there are theatremakers on the fringe opening up to the drama from other European countries. Seeing what the Europeans have to offer is not like the British economy going into the Euro. It can only enrich a great tradition that we already have in Britain.
"The Nest" plays at the Arcola until 28th April
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher