Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 9 February, 2009

The Royal Court begins its “Off The Wall” season of new German work with a characteristically unflinching piece by Marius von Mayenburg, probably (thanks to previous Court productions) the best-known in Britain of his generation of German playwrights. We Brits cannot perhaps appreciate the social and political audacity of the play’s piercing gaze upon those who benefitted from one or both of two eras of national upheaval within living memory, but we can surely all understand the impulse to mythologise our way out of guilt.
In non-linear scenes set at various times between 1935 and 1993, von Mayenburg portrays a family who, having fled the “Russians” of the East German regime in 1953, have subsequently had their old house in Dresden restored to them following the reunification of the country. The three generations of women who now live there are disturbed one night by the arrival of one of the house’s DDR-era residents, claiming what she was promised by them on a visit in 1978. (The bars of chocolate in question clearly stand for a bigger financial and moral debt.) Yet it transpires “their” house was not honourably acquired in the first place.
Teenager Hannah has been taught that her late grandfather was a hero for financing his Jewish former boss’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1935, but we see that he, a fervent Nazi, did so by bargaining to buy the boss’s house at a knock-down price, and may in fact have betrayed the escapees as well. The stone of the title is a paving cobble supposedly thrown at grandfather because he had helped Jews; in fact, he protests that the throwers are mistaken and the house is now inhabited by Aryans. But in a sense, the stone is the play itself, directed at the unreliable collective recollections of a nation which has gone through a century of repeated redefinition and perhaps prefers now to set expedient limits on such a process. It is in this respect a fictional, dramatic counterpart to the kind of indictment of collaboration and self-enrichment made against the French of World War II by Marcel Ophüls’ classic documentary film The Sorrow And The Pity.
As with his production of von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One here in 2007, director Ramin Gray keeps things bare. The set is an entirely closed box (ceiling and all), which the cast of six enter and exit through the auditorium; Matt Drury immerses this in white light just short of downright harsh. Linda Bassett is outstanding as grandmother Witha, the only character who appears in all periods and whose elderly befuddlement is complicated as she tries to keep the official version of her memories distinct from the actual events. She is counterpointed by Justine Mitchell as the boss’s wife in 1935, who exhibits the same fingernail grasp of politesse when she asks for a formal toast of friendship as when she takes an axe to the piano. The play is a long way from the knee-jerk anti-Germanism of some little Englanders (“two World Wars and one World Cup”), but is all the more disturbing for not pandering to such clichés.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage