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December 9, 2013 5:58 pm
Everyone has bad days at work but it is fair to say that the drab little bank clerk at the centre of Georg Kaiser’s 1912 Expressionist drama does so in some style. When an exotic Italian lady reaches through the grille and brushes his hand, he is shocked out of his numbing routine. Gripped by lust, he grabs a huge stash of cash and makes a run for it, only to be spurned by the object of his desire. He should go back, but he can’t: a man possessed, he hurtles off on a day-long quest to find meaning. Can money buy a reason for living?
You can see why the National Theatre might have revived this piece. A century on, in the wake of economic crisis and in the face of intractable conflicts, we too might sometimes feel a sense of desolation and alienation. With its splintered structure, it projects a nightmarish logic and its sense of urgency and despair could chime with contemporary fears. In historical terms it seems to sense the impending cataclysm; in theatrical terms it makes a fascinating precursor to writers such as Brecht.
Sadly here, however, despite Dennis Kelly’s translation and Melly Still’s ingenious ensemble staging, it feels dated and rather laborious. Once our clerk has abandoned his family, finding no solace there, and flirted fruitlessly with moneyed society, it is clear he is going to continue sampling supposedly meaningful experiences and you can start ticking them off. The characters are blackly comic archetypes and even the clerk has no real personality, so the whole thing is strangely unengaging.
It is staged, though, with great style by Still, and Soutra Gilmour’s tremendous sets, drawing on the avant-garde art of the period, fill the vast Lyttelton stage with a series of hallucinatory and disorientating tableaux. The opening scene creates a theatrical distillation of drudgery, with the bank workers operating like cogs in a well-oiled machine beneath a giant clock face. An abyss suddenly opens beneath a postman delivering a letter. The clerk’s searing epiphany takes place in a whirling snowstorm, with vast undulating bedsheets representing the snow, his tormented lust and his psychological trauma. And Adam Godley, pale and thin as a stick of celery and supple as a piece of string, holds the stage, sometimes resembling a medieval saint, sometimes Buster Keaton. But for all his fine work, this admirably bold choice of play seems indeed to last from morning to midnight.
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