Nest of Evil

The Audition by James Johnson & Normal by Anthony Neilson
The London Playhouse Company
Greenwich Playhouse

Publicity graphic

This double bill opens with The Audition, described as a 'work in progress production' but, although this two-hander premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, it seemed to me that it is the play itself that needs more work.

Stella, who has advertised an audition in the press, says she is a director. She says she was an actress but given that up because she froze in panic at her first audition - so presumably she never actually acted. Now she puts the only girl to turn up through a series of trials and humiliations that range from random association exercise to stripping, seduction and Russian roulette, to what she thinks is making a real life last phone call to her father before being killed. It feels as though dramatist James Johnson has seen a book about improvisation and other rehearsal techniques and had the (not entirely new) idea of using a director and wannabe performer as an image for one person's psychological exploitation of another.

Fiona Geddes makes a brave attempt to handle the 'director's' switchback changes of tactic but is defeated by the script. This neither works as metaphor or as a believable situation, though there is potential in that the audience is kept guessing as to what the real situation is. They are just as baffled as the victim Lauren, whom Rebecca Whitbread makes a believable innocent, doing the difficult job of playing a hopeless actress as a real person.

She obviously balked at the nudity the publicity warns audiences about, but did not need it to be touchingly vulnerable, though I could not for a moment believe she (the character) had the ambition to put up with this nonsense - Whitbread the actress clearly does.

Stella was looking for a puppet not an actress with emotions (perhaps Johnson has also dipped into Gordon Craig) and director Chris Loveless sometimes effectively uses his cast like puppets in the second play.

He does it with some justification, for Anthony Neilson's Normal, first seen on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991, is framed by the idea of a penny-arcade automaton showing the German multiple-murderer committing his crimes. Peter Kurten, the Düsseldorf Ripper as he was called, may have killed over 60 people, and was tried for nine murders and seven attempted murders in 1931. A young lawyer, Justus Wehner, defended him and thought it would be easy to show that he was insane and therefore should not be sent to the guillotine, and now looking back, Wehner tells the story. The case was well documented and police psychiatrist Karl Berg published a book called The Sadist based on interviews with Kurten as he waited execution. I don't know how much this play has been constructed from that record, though court extracts and some of Kurten's statements probably are, I presume that the dialogue between the murderer and his lawyer is the dramatist's creation, but it has the ring of truth about it, as the so-pure Wehner begins to get caught up in Kurten's mind-set.

This is a violent piece, not for the squeamish: Kurten tells how he discovered that 'the spilling of blood, its coppery smells and deep red colour caused a pleasant sensation in my crotch'; he describes how he copulated with dogs, pigs and sheep, sticking them with knives, preferring pigs because of their squeals; he goes on stabbing his human victims too, keeping blood flowing until he has reached his climax; later, he returns to ejaculate over the graves of his victims; and he goads the lawyer into sleeping with his (Kurten's) wife - 'lust,' he says, 'has no ethics.'

Designer Yu Kim Tan's set of pallets and boxes, arranged like a sort of shrine, with hanging chains that suggest the accoutrements of a sadist's basement but then glitter with fairylights, and Chris Loveless' direction which includes passages of automaton-like action, together with the retrospective form of telling, all help to anaesthetise some of the horror. This allows Oliver Millingham (Kurten) and Tom Micklem (Wehner) to play with an intensity that suddenly becomes manic when Wehner joins Kurten in a wild dance of slaughter. These are two fine and clearly spoken performances ably supported by Rebecca Jo Hanbury as Kurten's wife and other female victims.

The court found Kurten not insane but normal and, through Wehner, Neilson's play show how any normal person could come to find previously unacceptable behaviour as normal and, by inference - remember the date is 1931 -- how a whole nation could do the same.

As a grizzly footnote, an autopsy was carried out on Kürten's brain in an attempt to find irregularities that might explain his horrific behavior. His mummified head is now on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum in Wisconsin Dell, Wisconsin!

31st July - 19th August 2007

Reviewer: Howard Loxton