14/12/09, National (Cottesloe)
2 hrs 30 mins. A Katie Mitchell production of a Martin Crimp version of a Ferdinand Bruckner original more correctly translated as "the illness/disease of youth" and written in 1929.
The publisher's synopsis reads: "Vienna, 1923. A discontented post-war generation diagnose youth to be their sickness and do their best to destroy it. Promiscuous, pitiless and bored, six sexually entangled medical students restlessly wander in and out of a boarding house, cramming, drinking, taunting, spying. Freder sets about savagely experimenting with the young, pretty maid, with half an eye on his former lover Desiree, a wild, disillusioned aristocrat. Petrell abandons Marie for the ruthless underdog Irene. Marie doesn't waste any time weeping - Desiree wants her."
Or: "The sort of play written once in every generation, depicting the moral corruption and cynicism of a frustrated and disillusioned youth in a world that is hopelessly out of joint."
Way over the top but rivetting and not unconvincing. They all had tics, hang-ups and neuroses galore: checking their watches, looking over their shoulders, teasing and taunting and probing and provoking one another. This was, after all, the city and era of Freud. It's the sort of play in which someone says: "Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices."
The cast doubled as stage hands, in grey suits and white gloves, taking props on and off as the action froze and the lighting changed, covering furniture with plastic sheeting, introducing and removing glasses and clothing in plastic bags: detectives at the scene of the crime, or perhaps museum curators handling fragile artefacts. In the first part I didn't see the point. In the second part it served to highlight some important stage business, including a crucial overdose.
The fashions were elegant: splendid ladies' underwear, hats, frocks. And pyjamas! (Not for sleeping in, though: they had nightgowns for that.) There was a great deal of smoking (in one case of attractively aromatic cigars) and a great deal of shouting.
Everyone seemed to be playing games of control and dominance with everyone else. Feder was monstrous and spooky and clearly very ill, physically and mentally, as played by Geoffrey Streatfeild (whom we saw as Prince Hal/Henry V in the RSC Histories); he took delight in corrupting the housemaid and sending her out "on the game". A insisted at the interval that Desiree (Lydia Wilson), or Dizzy, the aristocrat who was so clever she scarcely needed to revise for her exams and seemed to have extraordinary sexual allure for men and women alike, plus an alarmingly suicidal bent, was also "on the game". We pooh-poohed that, insisting that she just slept around; but in part two she suddenly announced she too wanted to try walking the streets with the corrupted maid (she was prevented and promptly took a fatal overdose) so A was effectively right and we were wrong.
Marie's lover, Petrell (or "Dolly"), was weak and spineless and easily seduced by the self-made, waspishly self-defensive Irene (or "Sally" as her janitor father had originally named her). The dominance games seemed to involve quite a lot of class (the maid was delighted to discover that she and Marie both came from Passau and that her father, a carpenter, had worked for Marie's father, a bourgeois builder). D also thought they involved gender role-playing and the notion that women could only be happy and fulfilled if they had a man, perhaps because at the end Marie was taunted by the monstrous Felder into marrying him. I didn't get that: indeed, the women generally seemed admirably independent and un-dependant. They were, after all, professionals in the making (though I'm jolly glad none of them were my doctor).
Marie was Laura Elphinstone, first class: we saw her in Lysistrata at the Arcola and possibly Tom and Viv at the Almeida.