Brighton Fringe 2019
Written and produced by Christopher Schaunig, with costume and design by Kirsty Wise, it’s directed and co-produced by James Tanton. Till May 9th.
A few days ago I hailed the appearance of Christine Foster’s Four Thieves’ Vinegar as that Fringe rarity, a full-length almost-new drama. With the Festival proper starving us of say New York Public Theater performances, it looked to be one of the only productions of any substantial drama – all at the Rialto.
What a difference 48 little hours make. Here is that ultra-rarity, a 75-minute premiere full of pith and moment, and losing no action at all.
Chris Schaunig’s partly Austrian, this is personal. Some you might say happened to him as a child. It’s stayed, and fired an imagination remarkable for its specifics – post-cold-war East Germany, and a small town – as much as its haunting. Which we get straight off.
Heather Gayton’s Annika is picking red winter flowers which look like roses, for the local festival, essentially Black Peter. He, we discover, is the Krampus, a spirit who punishes children who don’t repent, drowning them in mud and eating them later. A terrifying mask-like figure with an axe threatens her, but she cannily challenges it to five guesses, and it’s Tom Silverton’s Stefan. He’s a man she has history with. Leaving her at some very painful pointin their past, she now spools out of him with various aides-memoires, the life he’s had since leaving.
She tenderly affirms his ‘useless’ Trabant-building – the large glass dome in the dashboard that wouldn’t be the same without him, she notes. But then all those shiny Trabants have been fried in post-cold-war parties. There’s a reference to Kate Winslett in Titanic. An iceberg of history comes between them too, and Annika – whom Stefan persists in calling Annie, like a child – is determined to melt it. But what will happen if she does? For instance what happened to Tomas, and the two friends Stefan was with, when they were about twelve?
There’s a sudden shift, an earlier time, but not much earlier. Dylan Butler’s Sebastian is Annika’s rock, and his father and apparently Stefan are coming for a sad affirmative ceremony by that same dead tree now flourishing with colours round its bole, where Annika later meets Stefan. Butler’s fine as the supportive friend. We’re then transported back to that same scene where Annika wishes to get at Stefan’s truth, then her own.
Costume and design by Kirsty Wise focuses on Annika’s dresses, a German maiden white with green trimmings and a summer yellow one for celebration, as well as the dowdier men. The design apart from various props like flowers, axes and mask, includes a blasted tree festooned with living flowers, and a surprise.
Directed and co-produced by James Tanton this is compellingly paced, and holds throughout its 75 minutes, which is challenging since on the face of it little happens. You’re gripped by what Annika’s asking, what Stefan’s evading and that interlude. What is it?
This play patiently explores the life many led both before and after the wall came down, and there’s a bit of it in Stefan’s pocket, as he recounts how he ran when ordered to by border guards who often set dogs on tunnelers. It’s a rich, detailed and thoroughly convincing sliver of small-town German life. The shorthand sense of Annika’s capacity to communicate and bring the best and the worst truth out of people – she derides her own intelligence – is convincingly portrayed by Gayton.
Silverton, just occasionally shouty invests the secret-hunched Stefan with believable darkness and fear. He’s a man in terror, but he might be looking in the wrong direction. Annika needs the answers to two shaping incidents in their lives. I’m not quite sure why she’s brought what she has brought with her, but it makes for a biting finish. And then there’s something else.
This is a part-thriller grounded in consequence, history, and the endurance of love with the need above all for revelation. Which this gets. Gayton bears the burden of this search, and is onstage throughout to fine-tuned consummate effect. All the performances are strong. There needs to be a little more adjusting of occasional vehemence but this is slighter than normal in small fringe venues. A must-see for anyone who values fine drama.