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It is an audacious move for the new management of the Tabard pub theatre to stage the least well-known of Georg Büchner’s three plays. London has seen his Woyzeck half a dozen times since the last revival of its 1836 predecessor Leonce and Lena. In some ways, that is not surprising. Where the unfinished text and fragmented psychology of Woyzeck led Büchner to be dubbed the father of modernism, the targets of Leonce And Lena’s scattergun satire are all very much of the writer’s own time.
Its general butts include rationalism (King Peter of Popo wanders around musing like a cut-price Kant), its rebellious response, Romanticism (his son Leonce wanders likewise, yearning for the sublime), and the sycophancy of royal courts. More specific lampoons are aimed at the tiny, self- aggrandising German statelets of the period and a particular, arranged marriage in Büchner’s home state of Hesse. In the play, Prince Leonce goes walkabout with a Sancho Panza figure, Valerio, and meets and falls in love with Princess Lena of Pipi, who is similarly trying to escape her own arranged marriage. Only when they tie the knot do they discover that they are after all each other’s royal intended.
Lydia Ziemke’s production is inventively staged, with designer Kate Myran making resourceful use of semi-diaphanous drapes in an otherwise amorphous playing space. But there seems little attempt to bridge the gap of almost two centuries, apart from Leonce and sidekick Valerio briefly singing the Statler Brothers’ song about smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.
If it does not work as satire, it needs to do so as more straightforward humour. However, few of the young cast are prepared to make vigorous enough pillocks of themselves for this; aside from Will Beer’s Valerio and possibly David Morley-Hale’s King Peter, their earnestness is more naturalistic than absurd. This seems to be one of those plays that it is more satisfying to have seen than actually to be watching.
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