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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Oliver Reese adapts and directs The Tin Drum for the Berliner ensemble, designed by Daniel Wollenzin and performed by Nico Holonics. Short run till February 29th.


Beginnings, at the start, middle or end can be modern Günter Grass’ stunted protagonist Oskar Matzerath tells us in The Tin Drum. The Berliner Ensemble’s modernity roots in the mid-century; one dedicated to tearing apart the German past Grass bangs on about. They’re made for each other.

So the Berliners’ Brechtian tang in Oliver Reese’s version -which he also directs – springboards Oskar’s skirling laughter. Is he being monstered or martyred? Othering meets Nazidom meets clown meets author guilt meets cabaret. Nico Holonics‘ solo performance invests dodgy storytelling with a ferocious truth.

Its epic sweep demands a swept stage, and designed and lit by Daniel Wollenzin it comprises simply a sunken grave or cellar into which many drums are hurled, and a massive chair, sizing Holonics into a child. He nevertheless clambers onto it. There’s surtitles projected behind which generally work though are occasionally too faint, and occasionally too quick.

With such storytelling in wheedling or gruff voices, Holonics contrasts leapings-up, snaffling a snare-drum, punching one through and snaffling a replacement, scrabbling around or without a sound dropping into that grave, in its cellar incarnation. Having started liminally at the back of the stage, only upper torso seen, it’s a tribute to Holonics‘ physical acting we never see him as a full adult, nor as a diminutive over-acting cipher. He suspends us in his own suspended height.

Holonics’ breaks into English elicit laughter because timing’s perfect. ‘Do you like it so far?’ There’s a sense the production worries at its own relentless pace and breaks off for Will Kemp-like clowning half-way through. Holonics rolls himself into a leer, emerges with a smiling morning face; asks front-row people their names, dusts them with sherbet as he walks along the front row ledge, shoots one-liners as he gets people to suck their dipped fingers, dismisses others.

Compressing Grass’s 1959 novel into 110 minutes through Oskar’s refraction is like being sucked through a venturi tube, narrowing and accelerating in one, till you’re shot from 1899 to 1945. Reese cuts some characters and goes clean to the bone.

The novel’s institution and post-war scenes lopped too, we get prologue then Oskar’s explosion on the scene on his third birthday; when he’s given a tin drum and determines to stop growing physically – decidedly not mentally.

We start with his mother’s engendering through gang-rape in a potato field in October 1899, a fast-forward to Agnes’ attracting two men who somehow take to each other: one Jan Bronski she desires, the other Alfred Matzerath later of the Nazi party, whom she marries.


It’s a tale of refusals: Oskar’s glass-splintering screams when deprived of his drum, and sudden accommodations, like the extraordinary scene when Oskar from under a chair bends 1935 Nazi rally drummers towards his own cross-rhythms. Chaos.

Does this lessen his complicity or his own mental chaos? Knowing what we do now about Grass’s confession of his time in the Hitler Youth, it’s hard not to sense the incredible torsions through which he puts his Oskared conscience. Deploying mental disturbance veils a naked reckoning. Grass’s brilliance invests Oskar with the author’s – and Oskar’s – get—out card; and of course renders Oskar too physically helpless for complicity.

Or as Oskar puts it he’s ‘one of those clairaudient infants’, whose ‘spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself.’ Now where have we heard such certainty about one man’s destiny?

Holonics’ gleeful confiding is cabaret-tinted. Indeed Oskar relates how Bebra a diminutive showman tries to recruit him to his ‘midget circus’, though Oskar defers this for many years and the account’s truncated. All you can do though if you’re this small is to be as visible as possible onstage, and this learned helplessness Oskar tips on its head as he tumbles towards a murderous disruptiveness. A child’s gleeful one leaping on his father’s back when he’s having sex, squelching evocations ditto. Metaphors hatch with Holonics gradating from whispering – stunning in this acoustic – to the shout-out you’d expect.

It’s a tale too of recognition and reduction. How in some ways Oskar feels himself responsible for the deaths of all three parents. Agnes his mother ‘slim soul and voluptuous body’ – Grass’ descriptions of her and Maria later are decidedly objectified. And there’s his ‘presumptive fathers’. One’s killed respectively by Germans: Jan Brodski his biological father for siding with Poles in 1939 and defending the Danzig post office. He’s been led there by Oskar, trying to get his drum repaired (Sigismund Markus the toyshop owner is similarly trashed). And there’s Alfred Matzerath, Nazi official, Oskar’s official father. Who swallows his Oskar-handed Nazi tie pin, confronted by Russian soldiers. Unaccountably it’s open when it was closed. Russians clock this.

There’s seventeen-year-old Maria Truczinski whose sexual games with Oskar leads to her marriage with Alfred and a son Kurt whose paternity Oskar asserts. Finally there’s a strange flirtation with the church too, echoing Agnes after her adultery. ‘Fuck you, Jesus’ – Jesus seems to respond. Apart from the very last extraordinary image everything else goes.

‘After Auschwitz’ Adorno famously put it ’there can be no more lyrical poetry.’ Not no poetry per se, as is often misquoted. So here, after such things only a trashing of taboos will do, those polite taboos that shrouded and permitted horrors – including erasing cabaret artforms and people like Oskar celebrated here.

The Tin Drum must be a burning of vanities, by someone in the midst of the flames. Though such a telling can’t effect such self-immolation – indeed Oskar here ends on a note of unnerving triumph – Holonics’ blaze-through avatar is unlikely to be surpassed.