'Beware of Pity'. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola © Gianmarco Bresadola
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As I was leaving the theatre I heard an English voice grumble, “So much text!” He was probably kvetching about having to listen to two solid hours of German, but it is true both that Ungeduld des Herzens (1939, literally “impatience of the heart”) is Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel and that Complicite supremo Simon McBurney, in his first work with a German-speaking company, concentrates on the words.

Often the piece feels less like a drama than a composition for voices. The seven performers are by and large discreetly costumed, and the set is sparse. With its stand microphones, live foley work and occasional projection of video close-ups on to the rear wall, it can seem like one of Katie Mitchell’s theatrical deconstructions. But then the words build up the dramatic shapes: layer upon vocal layer shows us young Austrian Lieutenant Hofmiller’s emotional confusion and his almost complete inability to grasp what he has got himself into.

First, at a social event hosted by wealthy Kekesfalva, Hofmiller’s ignorance leads him to make a gaffe regarding the paralysis of Kekesfalva’s daughter Edith; then, promising to marry Edith in the hope of encouraging her to take a cure (hence the English title Beware of Pity), he fails to see that her love for him is both obsessive and sexual. When he denies his engagement in public, a maddened Edith commits suicide. She dies at almost exactly the same moment as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which at least gives Hofmiller a handy world war in which to lose himself.

Laurenz Laufenberg as Hofmiller, the only non-doubled role, speaks his own dialogue, but the narration by the older Hofmiller is delivered by Christoph Gawenda. Correspondingly, the unreality and lack of control in Edith’s outbursts is shown by having Marie Burchard lip-sync to the delivery of Eva Meckbach. (Long-time Complicite associate Johannes Flaschberger also excels as Doctor Condor, another person Hofmiller radically misjudges.)

Despite these touches, McBurney’s staging is deceptively simple, with none of the technical or staging coups that have marked recent Complicite work. There are a number of eloquent visual moments, of course, but principally this is a production that says it with words.

To February 14, schaubuehne.de

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