FringeReview UK 2017
Laurent Seksik’s French language adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1942 The World of Yesterday features Jerome Kircher arriving at the Print Room. It’s an Institut Francais-funded, En Scene! production directed by himself and Patrick Pinneau, with Christian Pinneau’s bare chairs only once or twice used. It’s a model of restraint. Michel Winogradoff’s sound design doesn’t intrude, and for the most part underscores the atmosphere. Technical management’s by Jen Lou and surtitles Hanna Lassene, Theatre in Paris. To November 15th.
A bare exile’s figured in a stage barren of everything but a few chairs, one of which a man hangs his mid-century hat on. Stefan Zweig’s final work, his autobiography The World of Yesterday was posted to his publisher by him the day before he and his second wife committed suicide in Brazil, convinced their civilisation was destroyed. It was February 1942.
This French language adaptation of Laurent Seksik exhales it though never mentions it, as Jerome Kircher stalks his shadow across the matt black circle of the Print Room’s stage, in this Institut Francais-funded, En Scene! production directed by himself and Patrick Pinneau, with Christian Pinneau’s bare chairs only once or twice used (possibly Print Room chairs used in other productions). It’s a model of restraint. Michel Winogradoff’s sound design exudes a mildly tinkling melancholy on the piano, whooshed with strings: it doesn’t intrude, and for the most part underscores the atmosphere. Technical management’s by Jen Lou and surtitles Hanna Lassene, Theatre in Paris.
Martin Seymour-Smith in his Guide to Modern World Literature, declared a surprise was that Zweig (1881-1942) hadn’t committed suicide nearly a quarter of a century earlier with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Vienna as Europe’s cultural capital, infused with tolerance and love of the arts. Indeed Zweig traces Viennese decay and anti-Semitism to the start of the last century. Seymour-Smith has a point.
Kircher’s mellifluous rippling French gently works its magic as the surtitles keep mostly meticulous pace; and at certain instances, as if unvoiced asides, Kircher’s voice sounds from speakers instead of his mouth (he’s also miked up). He also appears to read from his memoirs in a maroon-clad volume, though it’s clear this isn’t any kind of prompt but to us, to realize this as a literary rather than dramatic artefact, artfully dramatized. Kircher’s ability to hold attention whilst perambulating slowly around the stage is a personal magic augmented by the Print Room and Coronet’s own: they alone can bring this kind of theatre and storytelling to life, with the simplest of means, as in the Blixen season earlier this year.
Zweig’s known as a superb memoirist, with brilliantly etched accounts of anyone famous he met (Mahler in the street, he says, or being patted on the shoulder by Brahms confusing your whole week). His accounts of Freud, and his last meetings with him when they were both exiled in London, is particularly moving. But apart from these meetings with famous men (he mentions women, and their repression) Zweig’s famous for a few short stories and two novels The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity (1938) both ending with the protagonist seeking a violent death, either in revolution or war.
Growing up Jewish in Vienna particularly invested you with cultural ambitions. Zweig’s father refused all honours offered to him as a manufacturer, but his mother was more ambitious for position, and to have a child in the arts was an honour. Success came achingly early for Zweig, and he describes the universal thrill of first authorship, his growing confidenc,e a sohjur in Paris observing great painters become youthful in the act of painting, and reflects that jackboots are crushing it: this fills him with more despair than Vienna’s fate.
Zweig’s Odyssey is intellectual but he packed in much, and much here in eighty minutes is necessarily omitted – his sojurns in Belgium with Verharen the great Belgian poet for instance. Kircher’s fleet attentiveness keeps what we have airborne: there’s no longeurs anywhere.
It’s the First World War that all joy leads to and despair pulls away from. Kircher hunches when declaiming on Zweig’s experiences at the Eastern Front, those chanced for death and the appalling conditions of civilians – including Jews suffering pogroms and now war in Poland – and dying soldiers in a reek of excrement and chloroform.
Most of all though he dissects the specifically German need for order and death, the Viennese barbarism in the face of war, pacifists and anarchists suddenly bellicose. He realizes Freud was right all along. More, in the terrible aftermath he perceives Germany never forgives the Weimar Democracy for giving it a hectic display of laissez-faire and liberalism, sexual most of all. Germany longs for order has never been sued to democracy, doesn’t know what to do with it. Displaced officers shorn of their epaulettes and bankers plot and wait, and we get Hitler.
Zweig rivetingly describes this as a realisation of his own spiritual death, ‘it was like walking behind my own corpse.’ How redact such a statement? certainly not through those visits to Freud, made after he quite Vienna for London in 1934, selling up and on one trip in 1937 looking round in a valedictory manner, and never looking at his former Munich house as the train passes it.
It seems he left in London his last precious artefacts. Oscar Wilde was broken with the sale and break-up of his own library. Zweig, who rescued a few items like his copy of Rilke’s poems inscribed to him, seems to have relinquished these in London, as he did his last conversations with the pain-twisted Freud, memorably described. After leaving London – suddenly an enemy alien on the declaration of war – he made the longest journey to suicide ever undertaken, to Brazil, where eh and his wife ended their lives after this last spasm of witness. It manages to touch a ruminative greatness, conveying the deadly scent of Vienna, the last miracles of literary prodigy, like the young Hofmannsthal, also a victim of the same sensibility, who died in 1929, broken after his son committed suicide. T.S. Eliot wrote of the’ infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’ and we take this as feminised It applies to Zweig though, and to the exilic Viennese, in this riveting, moving dramatization.
Zweig’s attracted much attention and popularity in the last decade, even an all-star film homage to him, The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a sense we’re getting a purer distillation, Zweig’s own words, here, dramatized more quietly, though with a telling that never falters.
Some like poet Michael Hofmann who translates the great Joseph Roth violently object to Zweig’s new acclaim. It’s as if a decade that rediscovered Irene Némirovsky (of Suite Francaise fame) and Zweig has lost its taste according to those who champion Roth. Robert Musil is greater still, but Zweig’s genius has struck a popular chord as it did in his lifetime. His culturally appalled antennae, his historical despair, certainly deserve a place amongst the best-read Austro-Germans of their time. Now though Zweig lends himself peculiarly to a theatrical dimension, as if in a sense his understated occasionally theatrical sense of things have discovered an ideal outlet. It’s wonderful the French like the British have rediscovered this in him. It’s over in a blink. If you’re at all near, you won’t regret the Print Room’s opalescent sliver of magic conjuring the best out of this production.