Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE ARSONISTS • Royal Court Theatre • 2007

Royal Court Theatre

Royal Court Theatre

Mr Biedermann has a ‘social conscience’, as far as many liberal Britons would understand it – he is content to live his life within the prescribed guidelines, enjoying the consumer comfort he deserves, trusting in the omniscience of a benign government and avoiding situations of friction with any other human being. But as a ‘liberal’, at what point should you become proactive when extremism threatens and stand up to defend what you believe in?

The Arsonists is subtitled ‘A moral play without a moral’ (‘Ein Lehrstück ohne Lehre’), and yet, as the action deals with a man who, in his indolent keenness not to offend, helps two arsonists wire up petrol bombs in his own attic, one is positively encouraged not to take this as read. Written shortly after WWII, the play was seen as an attack against the Europeans, of Frisch’s homeland of Switzerland in particular, for their failure to act against Nazism. Our epithetical ‘biedere mann’ (‘worthy man’), Mr Biedermann, prides himself on being a liberal – or more accurately a tax-paying citizen in a liberal society – and as such is content to resign all responsibility to the state and give up thinking himself. Will Keen’s ‘Biedermann’ is impeccably played with superb comic-timing and flawless delivery, and in him we witness the very human tragic fall that is brought about by apathy. The situation is timeless, and one needs only look to Britain’s current internal and international relations to see how apposite this new production is.

The Royal Court plays host to a real gem with this one. The Arsonists achieves that which is so sought after and so seldom achieved in the world of theatre – it is both supremely enjoyable and endlessly thought-provoking. Before I am swept away with the effects of the production as a whole, I must stop to mention its component parts. Firstly, Anthony Ward again delights us with his inspirational scenery – watch out for the most outstanding onstage rain ever. As in Rhinoceros, the set is backed by the bare bricks of the Royal Court, destroying the illusory nature of theatre and encouraging discourse with the reality onstage.

The company is tight and energetic; from the stand-out performances of leads Will Keen (Biedermann) and Jacqueline Defferary (his wife Babette), to the admirable synchronicity of the Chorus, no-one could have asked for more. The play is so well-executed under the superb direction of Ramin Gray, that I feel liberated to talk more of its effects as theatre than its mechanisms.

This production is the result of an erudite artistic tension between director Ramin Gray and translator Alistair Beaton. Beaton wished to leave space for the audience to decide who the arsonists represent for us here and now. This is the tradition of theatre today – a theatre now the preserve of the left-wing establishment. Yet he grants one important change to Gray – the wind that fans the arsonists’ flame blows from the East instead of the South. Ramin Gray wishes no-one to doubt that the arsonists he is targeting in this polemical production are the proponents of Islamic fundamentalism. His honesty about his strong stance is refreshing in its directness – this is as controversial as theatre gets in Britain today. It is a brave decision that only works because Gray has not imposed anything on the play. Rather, his strong directorial stance has given his actors a firm board on which to lay out the words of Frisch’s text.

Gray’s purpose is clear, but its effects are subtle. Unlike the unthinking Biedermann, one leaves this play wishing to discuss and question, and we are lucky to live in a society where our questions are still permitted.

Belinda Williams © 2007

Originally published on R&V on 00-00-00

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