Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Southwark Playhouse

If the below reads a little bit more like a, y'know, proper review than you're used to round these parts, that's because, well it is. i've not mentioned on here that i've joined the dark side, have i? Well, now i have. Having banged on incessantly about how all theatre criticism is rubbish, i've been given the opportunity to put my bollocks where my mouth is (no, wait, that's not quite right), (actually, it probably is). This review got buried under the landslide of Christmas shows that blanket the theatre pages in December, so i'm putting it up here as a matter of record as much as anything else, since, sadly the show's run has finished.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Southwark Playhouse, London

By the end of the multinational Oslo Group's fittingly icy production, the Southwark Playhouse is so cold you can see your breath. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's unflinching meditation on the destructive power of desire, best known in its 1972 film form, here receives an intelligent, stylish revival.

Kimie Nakano and Matt Deely's spare, otherworldly design atomises the cavernous space. It is in the huge distance between its inhabitants that the drama works, in the gaps between desire and its impossible consummation. Petra, a wildly decadent fashion designer, falls in love with model Karen. At first, she stands her on a chair and assesses her, thoroughly objectifying her. But soon the power shifts; Karen is free to torment and abuse Petra in the knowledge that the further she is from the ideal Petra projects onto her, the more she lusts to possess her.

Here love is an act of pure masochism, maintained insofar as it is unfulfilled. Anna Egseth turns in a remarkable performance as Marlene, Petra's silent, much-abused servant. An ever-present observer, hovering on the margins of the action, her every look speaks a world of self-abasing desire for her mistress.

When David Tushingham's translation brings its despair to the surface, the gestural, expressionistic performance style heightens its poetry. As Sasha Behar's Petra disintegrates she becomes a self-dramatising whirlwind of spiked prose. But before Karen's rejection triggers her descent, it feels stilted - unremarkable speech weighted with an emphasis it does not merit.

Yvonne McDevitt's production changes style and tone instantaneously. At times the effect, though disconcerting, is subtle and intelligent; we are jerked back from a scene of wrought emotion by upbeat beats and dancing, only to be thrust suddenly back to the cruel reality of Petra's rejected daughter's wails. At others it jars unhelpfully.

"It's easy to feel pity. Understanding is a lot harder," Petra declares. Even as she breaks down, bitterly lashing out and descending into near madness, the production declines to work on our emotions. Instead it exerts a cold, almost intellectual fascination which nags at the mind long after the performance has ended.

8 comments:

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