Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Schopenhauer and I

Norbert Saffar
Riverside Studios
(2009)

Publicity photo

As we say in the trade, Cela n'est pas ma tasse de thé. Norbert Saffar has brought his hit French show across the Channel, newly translated, for a very limited showing at Riverside Studios. It is billed as a one-man show examining the trials of modern living, from the perspective of the thoughts and theories of nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. May not sound everyone's cup of tea either; but it was rather the lack of philosophy that left me feeling short-changed.

Saffar performs energetically on a stage bare save for a costume rail, a few chairs and a beach towel. He does his utmost to bring situations to life for us, and his motormouth style makes his reputation as a French Woody Allen seem fairly justified. He certainly has the self-doubt and neurosis too. A succession of loosely-connected anecdotes give us his manic life in Paris; his foolish provoking of a fellow driver in a moment of road rage; the time he competitively bid at an art auction and ended up pledging a non-existent ten million pounds for a Van Gogh. Where does Schopenhauer come into this? Only in the sense that Saffar used his pessimistic opinion of mankind to back up the bitterness his own experiences made him feel.

Schopenhauer was indeed famous for his gloomy outlook on humanity. Saffar runs with this further in the central story of the show: his attraction to another woman, leading him eventually to cheat on his wife, and her to leave him for a beefy bullfighter. Schopenhauer believed men were helpless victims of their base desires - namely lust: against which reason or any sense of moral restraint didn't stand a chance. This is the excuse Saffar frantically extrapolates for himself in the build-up to the affair, and then nurses obsessively after his wife has left, as the reason why she should not blame him for what happened.

We are not expected to take Saffar's ruminations seriously or to be on his side in this; he's the tragicomic figure digging himself deeper into a hole. But what else are we to take from it? I was ready for some deeper look into how this "man-as-blameless-animal" philosophy could potentially motivate people to act: comparisons with Nietzsche spring to mind, or with Raskolnikov's Napoleon complex in Crime And Punishment. But none came. Nothing came either from Saffar's dwelling on Schopenhauer's theory that all life is suffering. Some background research has taught me that Schopenhauer went on to argue for Buddhist-style self-denial as a way of getting past the pain of sensual cravings. But Saffar doesn't give us any such next step in the argument. He vaguely suggests it in advocating a slowing-down of the pace of life in order to appreciate simply being alive in the moment, but this is such standard self-help stuff that to stamp it with the name of a specific, highly individual German thinker seems a bit of a stretch.

When Saffar's Allenish mannerisms are to the fore the show picks up: there is a good skit where he imagines being kidnapped by Iraqi terrorists and trying to explain his high cholesterol to them as they serve him horribly greasy food. But his lack of prowess in English is a hindrance: I didn't catch his words about a quarter of the time. He also needs to use the space better: he plants himself on one spot for long minutes; and changes of scene or character, rather than being lightning-quick, are enforced with a heavy pause and a bludgeoning lighting change.

I may be criticising Saffar mostly for the play he didn't write. But to offer a show purportedly about philosophy and then to deliver a plain comic monologue with a sprinkling of soundbites seems a real missed opportunity. In an interview Saffar suggested Woody Allen and Schopenhauer were quite similar in their dryly pessimistic take on life. This made me think of Hannah and Her Sisters and the sequence in which Allen't character tries all sorts of things to attempt to give some sense of meaning to his life, before discovering that an old Marx Brothers movie does the trick. Art redeems life, Allen is essentially saying. My googling informs me that Schopenhauer indeed felt something similar: that the experience of life as representation - ie. in art - would always be a lot more bearable than facing it in its brute reality. This is the interesting stuff. I wish I hadn't had to fill in these gaps myself.

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury