Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1
Opened 31 May, 2000

Marius von Mayenburg's Feuergesicht, seen in the Hamburg Schauspielhaus production at the tail-end of last year's Edinburgh International Festival, now arrives in English translation (by Maja Zade). Dominic Cooke's production of Fireface clocks in at a mere two-thirds of the Hamburg version's two-hour running time, and designer Ultz remakes the Royal Court's Upstairs space in an entirely novel format, but the play seems no more distinguished now than then, and indeed, in some crucial respects Cooke is oddly unhelpful to it.

Von Mayenburg starts from the position of bürgerlich German family drama, or Volksstück. Father and Mother (Ian Gelder and Gillian Hanna) are the embodiment of suburban moderate liberality, but their teenage children's attitudes and activities superimpose on this a narrative which shows the influence on young German playwrights of their British near-contemporaries such as Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane. For Kurt is experimenting with firebombs while his younger sister Olga in turn experiments on him. When Olga acquires a drunken, ineffectual biker of a boyfriend, he and Kurt spend much of the time in mutual jealousy, as Kurt (his face by now entirely covered in white emollient ointment after an incendiary mishap) and Olga retreat further into a shared, silent and ultimately fiercely destructive hermetic shell.

For a British audience, and especially a Royal Court audience (with the coals-to-Newcastle element that implies), this is not the strongest of fare. The major component of unsettlement comes here from the staging. Ultz has gutted the Theatre Upstairs of its seating and filled it with a labyrinth of tables, around which the audience sits on swivel chairs as the action shifts from area to area sometimes at tables, sometimes between them, but more usually upon them. At one point or another virtually every single spectator gets part of the action literally in their faces.

It is a bold and inspired move, but one which in fact militates against some of the play's inherent power. The play's sense of danger and discomfiture arises from the naturalistic banality on which the narrative is founded. Remove that everyday grounding, and the sexual and violent charge becomes attenuated; we are unable to permit ourselves to be properly disturbed, because the spectacle we are watching is so resolutely unnatural in its use of the space. Like table dancing, table acting is a close-up and sometimes unnerving experience but one which is a mere abstraction, devoid of the potency of the activities it alludes to.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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