Saison 2014-15 Theatre dela Colline
Stanislas Nordey in the title role. Photo: Christine Letailleur

The notion of a crisis of masculinity has become commonplace in recent years. Historians have even applied it retrospectively to shell-shocked war veterans, and Ernst Toller’s rarely performed Hinkemann provides a powerful metaphorical backing to the idea.

Written in 1921-22 while Toller was in prison on conspiracy charges, Hinkemann equates one man’s loss of virility to Germany’s condition in the aftermath of the first world war. Rendered impotent by a battlefield injury, Hinkemann returns to his wife, Grete, who, despairing of the situation, cheats on him and ultimately becomes pregnant. Unaware and unable to find a job, Hinkemann joins a freak show as a “German hero”, an Übermensch figure who eats live rats and mice.

Toller’s dark brand of expressionism makes for bitter contrast and irony throughout the play. Hinkemann, who early on rescues a bird tortured by his mother-in-law, is driven to killing animals for a living; the “eunuch”, as he is called, becomes a farcical embodiment of German power.

Unfortunately, Christine Letailleur’s production often follows red herrings instead of tackling that central allegory. Weimar’s growing hostility towards Jews, mentioned only in passing in the text, is emphasised with songs and a Star of David drawn on to the Hinkemanns’ window; the freak show is more akin to a Parisian cabaret, with song-and-dance numbers for Christian Esnay as its director and a lightweight, Amélie-style accordion score.

The cast as a whole struggles to strike a realistic note. The suave, stylised acting currently en vogue in Paris is at odds with Toller’s portrayal of the German working class: a scene at a local pub looked more like a reunion of French intellectuals, complete with pipe-smoking philosopher, than a political debate between industrial workers. Popular actor-director Stanislas Nordey is conspicuously miscast as Hinkemann and his grand gestures and impossibly posh way with consonants were a source of unwitting hilarity throughout the performance.

The Théâtre de la Colline is at least doing its part this season to achieve gender parity among directors. Before Hinkemann, Célie Pauthe directed an ambitious if ultimately flawed Henry James/Marguerite Duras double bill. There is much more work to be done, as the mostly male line-up of the forthcoming Avignon Festival indicates, but the conversation has started.

To April 19,

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