Botho Strauss is an unlikely cultural standard-bearer for the German new right. In laying bare the hollowness of social rituals, his viewpoint seems nihilistically comic rather than dangerously nationalistic. But he is one of the discontented children of consensus politics, blowing discreet but often bewildering dramatic raspberries at a society that can get absurdly passionate about the delights of the Swatch range.
His 1989 play Time And The Room – given an impressively bald staging by Lisa Forrell in its British première – begins with two men in an upper-storey apartment, commenting on passers-by below. Each remark conjures the person in question into the room: the distraught young Marie Steuber fleeing her past, a couple of strait-laced types dissecting the previous evening's party, and so forth. The interaction of these people is pointless and circular. The gnomic, silent apartment-dweller Olaf launches without warning into a frantic Lucky-like monologue which is slapped down by his partner with a matter-of-fact "Nobody asked you," then mumbles an apologetic, "Oh, sorry, I thought I heard something," and lapses back into his customary silence. The act itself peters out in much the same way.
A series of disconnected episodes after the interval sketch in the vacuous life from which Fräulein Steuber (Susannah Corbett) is trying to escape: everything from the mundane oppression of office routine to a heated discussion of the play Medea with a lover. There is no discernible time-line to these scenes: they could be flashbacks, flash-forwards or sidestep into a different reality. Characters from Act One come and go, sometimes in different guises, sometimes the same, never with any recognition.
Strauss intersperses moments of bürgerlich social ritual with equally bürgerlich soul-searching; to him it is all identically vapid. Forrell and the cast of nine play each moment as it comes and allow the underlying sense of futility to permeate through on its own terms. Some characterisations may be more memorable than others (Paul Ritter as a hilariously diffident nerd, Duncan Duff's slightly threatening low camp), but no individual is allowed to rise from the author's quagmire of dissatisfaction.
Neither reassuring in its comedy nor directly shocking in its despair, the play leaves one with the unsettling impression that were Botho Strauss ever to make an unambiguous, polemical statement, it would be both worryingly powerful and deeply distasteful.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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