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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE ARSONISTS
at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
By Matt Wolf

  Dinner party of the absurd/PH: Alastair Muir

A rare slice of the dramatic repertoire completes the Royal Court's mainstage offerings for 2007 in an uneasy production from the usually expert Ramin Gray that doesn't seem either quite as funny or as scary as Max Frisch's 1953 play The Fire Raisers - here re-titled The Arsonists in Alistair Beaton's new translation - by rights ought to be. Timely as can be in its discussion of whether the enemy is merely at the gates or is in fact joining us at the dinner table, the production happened to open amidst a climate of major fires both in the UK and the US, as if to implicate modern-day society in an ongoing malaise that has only deepened since the Swiss architect and writer first proffered his diagnosis.

The play's chorus are in fact so many cautionary firemen (and women) who are there in a thrice to stop the central character - Will Keen's drily spoken Gottlieb Biedermann - from lighting up, theater stages apparently being about the only interior in the UK these days where anyone can smoke. A successful businessman who has made his money in hair rejuvenation, Gottlieb gets a surprise visit from an unemployed wrestler, Paul Chahidi's Schmitz, who has come in search, we're told, of humanity and before long has opened the floodgates to various other arrivals to a home that before long is hosting what Gottlieb thinks of as his own last supper. How did this wary, ostensibly shrewd-eyed money man end up making the family's food and drink available to the denizens of a town that is said to be surviving day to day? Before long, six oil drums have been installed in the attic, presumably awaiting nothing more than the detonator to set off the gas inside them, with Schmitz conferring on tactics with a waiter, Eisenring (Benedict Cumberbatch), who prompts Gottlieb to fret that all this newfound activity under his roof might exacerbate his wife's heart condition. But - here's the satiric rub - not only do the two intruders stay put but Gottlieb and Babette (Jacqueline Defferary) end up accommodating them. What results is a newfound mix of people from different backgrounds and classes laughing their way to the grave in a play that, more than ever, reads as a parable of giving outsiders an inch lest they take a murderous mile, Frisch's own awareness of the Nazi insurgency displaced in our troubled times to considerations of the Islamist fundamentalist threat.

The Arsonists is running in repertory with Court artistic director Dominic Cooke's own staging of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, another play about an individual forced to redefine his very existence by the encroachment of the baying mob (in the case of that play, of the quadrupedal sort). But it's not just Beaton's own credentials as an ace satirist for our time that one suspects the text is in fact far funnier, however black the comedy, than it comes across here in a short production that nonetheless feels considerably longer than its 100-minute running time. There are moments where Keen's irascible protagonist feels like a cousin of sorts to the beleaguered East Side couple played by Stockard Channing and Paul Shelley when John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation had its Court premiere in 1992.The actor, substituting for the originally cast Jasper Britton who decided to stay on in Rhinoceros but not in this one, does well by Gottlieb's slide from snobbery into its inverse, a kind of belligerent classlessness that leaves the snootiest person around to be - yes, you guessed it - the maid Anna (Zawe Ashton). She's the one

 


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