FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by Diyan Zora, Designer Zoe Hurwitz, Lighting Designer Christopher Nairne, Sound Designer Joe Dines, Dramaturg Jennnifer Bakst, Movement Director Chris Evans, Intimacy Coordinator David Thackeray, Casting Director Christopher Worrall, Voice Coach Emma Woodvine, Costumer Supervisor Rebecca Carpenter, DSM Anna Hunscottt, ASM Eavan Gribbin, Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Production Manager Stuart Burgess, Deputy Production Manager Lisa Hood.
Till April 16th
When did we last see silence roar like this? Perhaps not since Alexander Zelvin’s Love at the National in 2016, which along with his other plays Diyan Zora also directed. With Franz Xavier Kroetz’s 1978 play Tom Fool – translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis – Zora patiently terraces the growing and retarding pains of a small family till it splinters, leaving them naked from their cocoon to start out or curl into a ball.
Fragmentary scenes – a Kroetz trademark – start to trace a familial pattern. Apparently random, their character hardens into all you’ve got. Each adds a tiny flashpoint of recognition – and demolition. Father Otto in his violence to keep things the same, forces the change he thinks he resists.
Michael Schaeffer’s memorable Otto seems the fulcrum of dissent from himself, as he and Anna Francolini’s centripetal Martha – someone trying to hold back the flying-off father and son – watch the 1973 royal wedding. Martha’s enjoying it. The expense, mutters Otto, and it’s that waste of shame that tugs at Otto throughout as we build each money-infused scene to the small catastrophe of fifty marks going missing, which the couple discover queuing to buy groceries (not normally an Otto thing).
This spirals into accusing their son – Jonah Rzeskiewicz’s often mute, slouchy Ludwig – into silent rebellion, even as he’s forced to strip. The truth’s more complicated, and that fifty marks has a deliberate echo later when we learn what Otto spends another fifty marks on. That’s after incurring another expense as Martha counts the damage of Otto’s one burst of home-splintering rage. ‘That’s a fact’ is a limiting phrase they both use, even when it’s an old saw like seven years bad luck for breaking a mirror, as Martha asserts.
Money might define their world, but not ultimately their world view. Kroetz both shows how capitalism seeps into every pore of their lives and yet how they might dream out of it. Through Martha’s accusation that his mind’s elsewhere, we discover Otto’s obsessed that a co-worker has stolen his Parker pen: this when they’re making love.
Yet Otto’s attempts at flight start with addressing his son’s model glider. His pride at his job yet self-loathing that he’s not better, render him almost tragic, though Kroetz might simply whisper ‘alienation’. Otto’s aspirations for his son to do better than himself as a BMW screw-fitter or ‘arsehole’ as he finally depicts it, launch him like the model glider.
Ludwig though wants to be a bricklayer. Later still, Otto tells Ludwig how he’s in a tunnel with no grips, scrabbling to get out and to the sky. Memorably, he adds that when he’s had a drop he wants to take a razor, slice himself open and step out of his limiting skin into a new self, walking to some infinity.
Schaeffer’s Otto swerves between crusty paterfamilias role-play, already cracking open like the skin Otto imagines, to a lyrically rapt, bitter epiphany. Kroetz has written Otto’s complexities to a level some actors will render faithfully. Schaeffer’s performance though hits the poetry and stillness as well as his obsolescence, and his raging sense of that.
Francolini’s performance is a simmering stealth as Martha gains in stature whilst her marriage falls apart. She’s quietly filling up with her own desperation at mere housework, dependence, ritual. Every twist of Otto’s yields an answering accommodation; till it doesn’t.
The silent scene Peace and Quiet – scene titles flash up like Brechtian interruptions in a hyper-realist play – marks their nadir. Otto’s raging smash-up has them clearing up the mess in a mesmerising eight minutes of complete silence. Francolini’s few, pained remarks peter out, but she has the final word. By Act Two everything’s changed.
Jonah Rzeskiewicz alters too in this act: he’s smiling, confident, indeed loving, but independent. Like Martha he’s discovered a resolution that doesn’t release him from the limits of class, but despite Otto’s warning that the shine wears off, he’s a nimbus of youthful hope. His relations with Martha blossom.
With Otto Martha dissimulates; you see how survival inures her, selling shoes but aspiring to cash-till counting and the food counter. Both these dreams seem miniscule, and Otto’s grandiose discontent might seem more aware of its prison: but he’s not able to claw out. Kroetz deals – tenderly but wickedly – with male frustration too, as he does in the earlier The Nest, adapted by Conor McPherson, last seen at the Young Vic in 2016.
Zoe Hurwitz’s set is a perfect storm of slightly outdated late 1960s cabinets, chairs with blue plastic and brown sofa. It’s the kind of furniture a working family by the 1970s is comfy with; with its porcelain shelves and more modern TV. That’s a single concession to those adverts of the famed wedding: ‘you’ll miss the reflection of gold on silver’ which had millions scurrying to buy colour TVs.
Rebecca Carpenter’s costumes precisely enfold 1960s scarves, raincoats contrasting quietly with Ludwig’s more 1970s stripy t-shirts. Christopher Nairne’s lighting can hollow out darkness with an effect that makes everything either more brown or garishly relentless, along with the small neon in scene titles. Online the cameras mark out the chiaroscuro at angles to make this a compelling watch.
Given it’s over five years since The Nest, it’s unlikely we’ll see another Kroetz play for a few years; it’s our loss. But this production – and acting – is pitch-perfect.
Kroetz isn’t Zelvin: there’s a clear slow-shattering arc, but there’s the same open-ended resolution. Here, though, at least for two characters, there’s a self-realisation, even if that’s only a willed acceptance. Sometimes knowing your prison walls too much can drive you mad.