Southwark Playhouse London SE1
Opened 24 June, 2011

Ödön von Horváth’s 1932 drama comes over, in this revival, as a little of many things but not a lot of any in particular. Its account of the succession of minor misfortunes and instances of unsympathetic treatment of a ladies’ underwear saleswoman down on her luck, to the point where she attempts to drown herself, is a pre-echo of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Here, though, we follow the decline of protagonist Elisabeth directly rather than being principally concerned with those who casually mistreat her. Like Priestley, von Horváth stresses both individual and collective responsibility, personal and social obligations. He is also concerned with ordinary folk (the play is based on a newspaper report of a suicide in just those circumstances), yet he writes those characters with deliberately affected voices. The tragedy is thus shot through with humour of pretension, which Christopher Hampton’s translation catches to some extent. Similarly, Elisabeth herself, in Rebecca Oldfield’s performance, combines both near-cockeyed optimism in her belief that the next break will set her definitively on the right path again with a clear-sighted, plain-speaking bluntness when they go awry once more.
Von Horváth was clear in his warnings against the rise of the Nazis; one feels here that the over-adherence to regulations is portrayed as a Nazi trait rather than one common to cowardly, officious people everywhere. Director Leonie Kubigsteltig makes the Nazi element explicit, often to a contradictory degree. The play is set in Vienna, yet we hear a radio broadcast of the results of the German parliamentary elections of November 1932, more than five years before the Nazis annexed Austria. It is as if these allusions are intended to be judged by aggregate weight rather than consistency. Kubigsteltig has assembled a solid cast of eight, with a couple of prominent talents in Helena Lymbery and Paul Bhattacharjee; Oldfield’s central performance, which seems at first to place Elisabeth in a different world from those around her, is finely judged in order to reveal gradually that that is the very point. And it is of course tempting to find contemporary resonances in regulations which seem to penalise the poor and unfortunate for being poor and unfortunate. But, like a “magic eye” picture viewed from the wrong perspective, the points never come into focus in a single image.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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