Georg Kaiser's 1927 play is billed as "a Gothic psychological thriller", but in Generation X's British première production it is the blackly comic aspects which stand out. Nevertheless, although it may not be presented in the spirit in which it was written, it is staged deftly and coherently, and doesn't quite betray the serious questions intended to be raised.
The background story is conveniently recounted in the opening scene between upper-class paterfamilias Monsieur Coste (Tim Welton, lacking only the age to bolster the gravitas he conveys) and his housekeeper Mrs Jattefaux (Liz Sidaway playing... well, a Gothic housekeeper). Coste's niece Catherine has recently given birth in secrecy, crying out as she did so the name of a young lieutenant, whom Coste has tracked down and who, in the subsequent confrontation, vehemently denies fatherhood. When the real father, a humble tradesman, comes forward voluntarily and – knowing his place – offers to be bought off, reality receives its first body-blow with the implication that a fistful of francs can transform unpalatable realities. As the action progresses, however, the driving force becomes not money but the indomitable will with which Catherine pursues her fantasy; she brings those around her into line with her desires not by plotting or manipulation, but through an obsessive refusal to concede that the truth can be otherwise than she has dictated.
This clearly isn't the plot of a comedy – but B.J. Kenworthy's staid translation begs to be played for laughs, and who are the company to resist? Dana Fainaro directs in a chamber style (I've never seen beige lighting before) rather than Kaiser's own expressionism, allowing the verbal excesses to reverberate absurdly. Coste pompously declares, "Women do not lie when they are giving birth"; Catherine and Lt Marrien speak of running away "fearlessly past cliffs resembling distorted human faces." On its third repetition, the audience finally picks up on the unintentional double-entendre description of the "real" father as "the man who delivers the meat."
Sophia Ashen as Catherine demonstrates a nice line in eloquent, immovable silences; Joanathan Cognac's Lt Marrien - all gold trimmings, attempted pencil moustache and epileptic left eyebrow – is risibly impassioned no matter which reality he follows.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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