An anatomy of social diseases

MUSIC; Star-Gazy Pie and Sauerkraut Royal Court, London
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The Independent Culture
Maria, an elderly German migre, is dying of an ironic condition in which the immune system, like some out of control armament factory, overproduces cells to defend itself against a disease which does not exist. "My blood is awash with goodness," she remarks dryly, "that's my disease." There's a further acrid irony which emerges that, when she was a young woman, Maria, who "belonged like millions to the party of complete indifference", was employed by Hitler to star in a propaganda film urging the merits of euthanasia for people with, for example, multiple sclerosis like the beautiful heroine whom she played.

Arrestingly staged by Mark Wing-Davey at the Theatre Upstairs, James Stock's Star-Gazy Pie and Sauerkraut is a play which carries a health warning: that the mission to cleanse mankind of sickness can all too easily become the desire to cleanse mankind of men.

The programme indicates that this ambitious, weird and darkly comic piece is based on an earlier work by Stock, The Shaming of Bright Millar. A young boy who served at sea with Nelson and was incarcerated in a madhouse on his return, Millar also features in the current play. But he crops up only in conversation or in the disturbed imaginings of Maria's Cornish granddaughter Kathleen, whose doctor mother, herself haunted by Maria's past and driven to make restitution for it through medical work, has recently committed suicide.

From its base in present-day Cornwall, the play keeps travelling back, via its characters' dreams and anxieties, to Nazi Germany and to the cruel 19th-century asylum where a doctor, attended by an admiring bishop, is seen strapping Bright into a torture chair. The title Star-Gazy Pie and Sauerkraut suggests a cultural collision of cuisines Cornish and German. But the implication of the piece seems to be that there is nothing incongruous in displaying on the same plate Hitler's genocidal purification drive and smaller scale health fanaticisms from elsewhere in time and place. The husband of Maria's other daughter is the director of a Californian Foundation for Human Improvement. "I've watched him teach a dying man how to love his disease," says the daughter reverently. No Nazi, she's certainly a body Fascist. And the play wants you to see how all these various quests for perfection entail superstitious insecurities and an ugly contempt for the weak.

Bridget Turner is splendid as Maria, a caustic, elegant crone who is not in the least sentimentalised even when we see her relive, as an old, wheelchair-bound woman, her fateful meeting with Robin Soans's wonderfully idiotic Hitler. "He craves hatred so that he can forgive himself," the complacent doctor in the asylum had said of Bright. But the play suggests that people inflict hatred on scapegoats so that they can forgive themselves. Not a new theory, but one that is elaborated here with theatrical flair.

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Paul Taylor

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