Edinburgh: Wake up and make sense to me

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The Independent Culture
WHAT PROMPTS anyone to watch a play in Polish, based on a novel in German, with English surtitles for 111/4 hours? Madness? Masochism? Intellectual machismo? Consider also a pace that would make a slug on Mogadon look animated, a set saturated in an alienating greyness, and music of such soul-sapping gloominess that at each interval you can't decide whether to eat an ice-cream or slit your wrists.

So it was a surprise to find a curiously compelling quality to the Krakow Stary Theatre's adaptation of Hermann Broch's trilogy The Sleepwalkers. Broch wrote it between 1888 and 1918, experimenting with styles of narrative that have drawn comparisons with both Joyce and Proust. He was obsessed by failed intimacy, and director Krystian Lupa has selected episodes which reflect his characters' desperate attempts to escape loneliness through eroticism, philosophy or religion.

Lupa's use of stage space emphasises the alienation of the novels. The small pools of light illuminating the actors draw attention to the darkness around them. At the same time they create an intimate focus that gives the production an almost filmic quality, enhanced by a pace that slows life down so much that every flicker of expression has a distinct dramatic impact. In one scene, a man and woman in adjoining bedrooms creak their way towards a failed seduction through a drawn out succession of lonely sighs, furtive glances and discomfiting silences. This stays faithful to Broch by inducing a reflective state that makes the mind receptive to his philosophical musings.

The problem with Lupa's adaptation, however, is the constant feeling that something is missing. Start reading The Sleepwalkers and suddenly the play makes much more sense - for as well as introducing you to the rich haunting prose that inspired the Stary Theatre to embark on this theatrical voyage, it reveals that lines in the play which come across as little more than poetic nonsense plug into the books fundamental conceptual concerns.

Broch, for instance, develops a theory that military uniform forms a protective rigid border between the chaos inside the individual and the chaos of the world outside. In the book, a military officer's reflection that his friend's waistcoat is undone speaks volumes about the friend's state of mind, while in the play it merely manifests itself as a bit of East European sartorial absurdity.

Ultimately, the most compelling element of this three-night theatrical marathon would seem to be its source. Lupa has not produced an adaptation but an occasionally interesting abbreviation. Those who really want to appreciate The Sleepwalkers should go straight to the bookshop.