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A grim Viennese whirl

Richard Brent

Tales from the Vienna Woods
Written by ÷dŲn von HorvŠth, 1931

Olivier Auditorium, The National Theatre, London
(Fourth installment of £10 Travelex season)

Director: Richard Jones
With Joe Duttine, Frances Barber, Nicola Walker, Darrel d’Silva, Gary Oliver, Paul Chequer, Karl Johnson and Doreen Mantle.

The first thing with which you are confronted when entering the National’s Olivier Auditorium for its production of Tales from the Vienna Woods is a set of giant fluorescent picture postcards. Snow-capped mountains; gurgling brooks; vast expanses of lush green; and a picturesque “medieval” castle on a rocky outcrop (from the Wachau district, a frequent nostalgic image in the play), promise every kitsch Austrian clichť going. And then, to cap it all, the hills come alive with the sound of music.

Even at this early stage, however, we should smell a rat. The tone set by the Strauss is romantic but wistful, perhaps even mournful, and the onstage band and ensemble shuffle out of sight with little spring in their step. It is significant that the action itself takes place against the backdrop of a blank postcard (the reverse side, perhaps where the “real” message is written). There is even a set of doors in the canvass through which characters frequently enter to have their say.

As the story of various bourgeois antagonisms gets underway (rather Madame Bovary), it is clear that this play has far more in common with what is probably the second most popular musical to take the Central Europe of this period as its theme, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. In fact, the uncomfortable truth the play ultimately acknowledges is encapsulated in a line from one of that musical’s most chilling numbers.

The song is “Money, Money”, a round with the refrain “Money makes the world go round; that clinking, clanking sound”: “And when hunger comes a-rat rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat at the window, see how love flies out the door!”

In The Sound of Music, characters that seem severe and unkind are redeemed. The icy heart of Captain Von Trapp is melted by the love of a good woman. The humourless nuns provide the family with a place of refuge in their hour of need. Even the boyfriend, turned member of the Nazi youth movement, only betrays his former lover after a visible struggle of loyalties in which his former life is remembered to soften the blow.

In Tales from the Vienna Woods, however, nobody is motivated by a generous impulse, and indeed characters and actions that seem to be “good” are revealed as being governed entirely by self-interest. Family members and neighbours tease and pet one another, and then when their progress, security or lifestyle is threatened, become the physical embodiment of pure hatred.

A young man butters up his doting grandmother, only to call her an old witch when she refuses to give him money. She then pathetically attacks him with her stick (he laughing all the while), only too soften again, reverting to type when she sees his coat has a tear in it and needs sewing. The same man yoyos between two women; using their initial lust and subsequent affection to finance his debauched lifestyle (again Cabaret is recalled with its “two ladies”). In another scene a woman breaks down and howls like a wolf before crawling off.

The play is a disturbing microcosm of a world in which Hilter’s famous version of “survival of the fittest” reigns supreme. The characters’ financial impoverishment follows the crippling inflation of 1923, leading to the rise of a movement that came to worship power, strength and individual prosperity over any notions of loyalty or wider social conscience. The most striking example of the lengths to which this can lead comes at the denouement, in which a grandmother resorts to allowing an unwanted baby to die of exposure rather than have to pay to keep it alive. There is real evil in this play, but significantly it is an evil that is made.

The basic story centres on the residents of one street of a community in which the local sport is musical beds. The toyshop owner’s daughter, Marianne (Nicola Walker), is engaged to the Butcher, Oskar (Darrell D’Silva), who is her father’s (Karl Johnson) best friend. There is an age gap here that should cause alarm bells to ring in any case, but it’s a good match from a financial point of view. Herr Spellbinder (the father) is delighted, Oskar is besotted, and the apathetic and slightly depressed Marianne will go along with it.

Enter Alfred, a wandering philanderer, who has already enjoyed and rejected Valerie, the tobacconist next door (Frances Barber), and now catches a glimpse of Marianne through the toyshop window. He sets out to woo her at a community cycling-cum-swimming excursion to celebrate Oskar and Marianne’s engagement, and naturally doesn’t meet with much resistance. Predictably, she thinks he is her knight in shining armour, arrived to rescue her from a loveless marriage; he gets a cheap thrill from seducing a woman at her engagement celebration.

The horror is all too believable. They then have a child together and embark on a loveless marriage of their own. At the same time, the jilted Valerie seduces first Marianne’s lecherous old dad, followed (more chillingly) by the young German student, Erik (Paul Chequer), who she subsequently takes as a “lodger”. As she capers about, flirting with her young Nazi during his target practice, her flying limbs engaged in impressive gymnastics begin to resemble equally intimidating goosesteps.

The acting is generally first-rate in a flawed production of a fascinating play that penetrates humanity as well as anything in Chekhov. And like Chekhov, brutal as it is, it is meant to be played as a comedy. Joe Duttine plays Alfred (truthfully) as a man with the air of health, confidence and attractiveness that stems from not having a care for anything or anyone in the world but himself. Every line delivered with the same emotionless yet contented ring, he saunters on and off, hands in pockets, like a Shakespearean Machiavel without the malice.

Frances Barber, Darrel d’Silva and Karl Johnson complete the grotesque array of opportunists, both pathetic and terrifying in turn. Nicola Walker plays Marianne as a woman who has accepted that she cannot “keep up”. Her fate will always be controlled by the ruthless, athletic wills of others. As the grief-stricken mother succumbs like a rag doll in her former fiance’s manipulating arms, Nazism’s ideology of power claims a victim and sounds a victory. Only Paul Chequer, as Erik, fails to engage; his camp, anal Nazi sapling looks and sounds as though he’d wandered on off the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo. He goes no way towards embodying the terrifying force his character represents.

Unfortunately, the National does neither company nor play credit. They are both lost in the vast swathes of the Olivier’s black emptiness, which swells even further when the back ridiculously opens up to reveal the dock. One way the National’s excellent £10 Travelex season was to be made economically viable was to dispense with unnecessarily lavish sets, but they are going to have to do better than this. It’s all to clear that this excellent play is in the wrong theatre.

14 November 2003

boontoe / to the top

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