By William Wolf

LONDON STAGE (2009-2010): 'PAINS OF YOUTH'  Send This Review to a Friend

Ah well, out of five outings to the National on this trip, I encountered only one misfire that contrasted with four especially satisfying theater experiences.

I wish I could have seen Austrian playwright Ferdinand Bruckner’s “Pains of Youth” when it was staged in the 1920s. Given its reputation, I can’t believe it would have been as awful as this new version by Martin Crimp dreadfully staged by director Katie Mitchell at the Cottesloe venue of the National Theatre. The play examines the lives of medical students in a rooming house in Vienna against the background of the malaise that was taking hold during that post World War I era. In one way or another, the characters are searching for direction in their lives. Cynicism and pessimism, as well as frankness about sexuality, including lesbianism, must have made audiences at the time sit up and take notice. The play was important in building Bruckner’s reputation.

The new version is marked by a hysterical atmosphere, line readings that make the characters terminally annoying and mannered attention-attracting direction by Katie Mitchell that persistently intrudes on the play itself. The entire enterprise gives the impression of a a director trying to capture attention at the expense of the work at hand. In the original language the title could be translated as “The Illness of Youth.” Mitchell’s interpretation represents the illness of directors—ruining plays in the staging in an effort to be different.

For example, at the outset a team of stagehands enter to briskly remove furniture coverings like waiters in unison taking the lids of food. Then throughout the production, the team appears rhythmically to bring in props, re-arrange furniture and do absurd things that the characters themselves could do. This annoying play-interruptus becomes laughable after a while, thereby foolishly detracting from the drama.

The affectation spreads to the performances. Laura Elphinstone acts in a loud, one-note level as Marie, who, when dumped by a man, against her better judgment slides into a lesbian relationship with the aggressive Lydia Wilson as Desiree, who is hysterical and suicidal. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s nastiness as Freder, who turns pimp as he puts one of the more decent characters “on the game,” is in keeping with the overall ugliness. Such is the persistent tone.

I keep thinking that the same dialogue in a different mode could make the characters more interesting and worthy of some of our sympathy instead of being so grating. Whatever meaning that exists in Bruckner’s work has been overshadowed in this production.


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