Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Opened 2 September, 1999

The theatre programme of this year's Edinburgh International Festival ended not with a bang, but with a protracted fizzle, as a pubescent arsonist held a single match burning on an otherwise blacked-out stage for almost a full minute. Marius von Mayenburg's Feuergesicht (Fireface), directed by Thomas Ostermeier for the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, may be placed in a domestic tradition of Volksstücke, or "people's plays", but when presented before a British audience it seems more of a weak dilution of the work of the likes of Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane. Grafting the sensibilities of such playwrights admired perhaps more in Germany than in their own country onto a conventional middle-class dramatic picture has resulted, in this case, in a kind of hybrid of Max Frisch's The Fire Raisers and Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden.

Whilst Kurt and Olga's parents are the embodiment of modern bürgerlichkeit, their son, who is at that awkward age ("Der pubertiert noch", remarks his mother), experiments both with firebombs and with his sexually awakening sister, leading to "scenes of nudity, first-degree burns and incest", as the programme notes succinctly remark; when Kurt and Olga retreat in the second half of the two-hour play into their own world of silent truculence, we know things can only end in tears, corpses and flames.

The Royal Lyceum's stage area has been converted into a broad, shallow 150-seat studio for Ostermeier's production, in which three distinct areas of the family house dining room, bedroom and bathroom are laid out but with scenes frequently played across two or all three areas without regard for spatial demarcation. A couple of gauze screens travel in front of the stage between "acts", only really coming into use in the closing minutes. Robert Beyer's Kurt is plainly more than a couple of cents short of a euro from the first, and Judith Engel, in her grey woolly tights, overplays the Lolita card, making her parentally sanctioned relationship with motorbiker boyfriend Paul somewhat bewildering; the text suggests at one or two points that Olga is older than Kurt, but Engel consistently portrays her as apparently younger.

It is a serviceable production of a serviceable play, but little more the sort of piece which would a few years ago have generated a modest buzz if presented, say, as part of the Assembly Rooms' programme on the Fringe, but which seems palpably inadequate to bring the curtain down on the International Festival. This was reflected in the embarrassment of last Thursday's curtain-call, at which the company (led by Wolf Aniol as the father) insisted on taking several more bows than the applause would reasonably sustain. The company seemed to expect the rapture befitting their and the Festival event's status, but received no more than the moderate respect deserved by a play which is, by the standards of its audience, simply nothing special.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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