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Tom Fool

Franz Xaver Kroetz
Orange Tree Theatre
Orange Tree Theatre

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Anna Francolini as Martha, Jonah Rzeskiewicz as Ludwig and Michael Shaeffer as Otto Credit: The Other Richard
Anna Francolini as Martha and Michael Shaeffer as Otto Credit: The Other Richard
Anna Francolini as Martha and Jonah Rzeskiewicz as Ludwig Credit: The Other Richard
Michael Shaeffer as Otto Credit: The Other Richard

Franz Xaver Kroetz is one of the most performed playwrights in Germany but his work is little known here. Had you ever heard of him? This play, which was first staged in 1978, is said to typify much of his work, which deals not with the obviously dramatic but with the day to day intimacies of ordinary working people and their banal conversation. Not grand speeches but inarticulate chatter, the meaning being in the gaps between, the things that they can’t express.

The Fool (Mensch Meier) presents the family of Otto Meier (Michael Shaeffer), a semi-skilled worker on a car assembly line who comes to see himself as a human screwdriver as he spends his working day performing the same repetitive action. His wife Martha (Anna Francolini) runs the home, she doesn’t go out to work, while their son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) is unemployed, not yet in his first job. It is time Ludwig earned his own living, not be still lying in bed long after Otto has left for work, and his dad doesn’t want him to end up a labourer, he should do better.

Money is tight, Otto counts every Mark that they spend, but they aren’t starving. There is the occasional beer garden outing and breadwinner Otto can indulge his hobby: building and flying a model aeroplane.

Otto sees himself as good and reliable worker but there’s an underlying insecurity and lack of confidence. He’s riled that his boss borrowed his pen to make some notes while showing visitors round the factory and failed to return it. It was a Parker Otto was obviously proud of but he has not found a way to ask for it back. When the factory makes 47 of the workforce redundant, he claims he’s secure but very cut-up that a close colleague is among them, but you can feel the fear he is hiding.

In a series of sometimes fragmentary scenes which are often given flashed-up titles, we eavesdrop on domestic moments—Mum unmaking Ludwig’s bed and turning it back into a sofa; Otto unable to have sex with Martha because he’s thinking about that Parker pen, the three of them watching a royal wedding on TV like an clip from Gogglebox—but what begins as endearing or amusing becomes increasingly fraught as tensions build up.

This is a portrait of a proletariat that feels powerless, lives stunted by class and income, not connecting when they most need to.

All three actors deliver performances that exist as much in the silences between the words as what is spoken. The turning point is a long scene in which nothing is said. Michael Shaeffer makes Otto pretty insufferable yet still wins sympathy: “I’d like to climb out of my skin if I could,” is how he finally articulates his feelings. Anna Francolini more subtly presents a dutiful wife slow to rebellion but beginning to see beyond the conventional role women still had, while Jonah Rzeskiewicz’s Ludwig is an earlier rebel who wants to choose his own journey.

The disintegration of this family and their prospects for the future make a powerful political statement and director Diyan Zora’s production makes sure that every little look counts.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton