The Gate Theatre scored one of its greatest triumphs back in 1991 when it presented the English language premieres of Purgatory in Ingolstadt and Pioneers in Ingolstadt. These two brilliant plays, set within the claustrophobic Catholic community of her Bavarian hometown, were written in the Twenties by Marieluise Fleisser, lover, protégée and victim of Bertolt Brecht. Its searing insights into the pack mentality did not endear her work to the Nazis and it was only in the early Seventies that the plays received the recognition they deserve from the generation of Fassbinder and Kroetz.
The Gate rightly won gongs for putting Fleisser on the map. Keeping up the connection, Erica Whyman now bows out as artistic director of the venue with Marieluise, a poetically sensitive yet punchy bio-play by Kerstin Specht. A series of vignettes whisk us through a story of struggle against the forces of religious repression, small-town bigotry, male condescension, and the Nationalist right wing. Oh, and against the force that was Brecht.
An episode in the convent where Fleisser (Catherine Kanter) went to school, establishes one of the patterns. It is forbidden for the girls to acknowledge the wounded First World War soldiers billeted there. When out of pity, Marieluise responds to an amputee, it is she who is hit in the face by the army doctor. The soldier commits suicide and in his pocket they find a letter to the girl. She's damned either way: blamed for being friendly to him, blamed for not being friendly enough. Later, at the start of her theatrical career, she's told that her first play has replaced a piece by a young man, who as a result shot himself. The one spot where women are assured pride of place, it seems, is in the wrong.
Reeking of prolier-than-thou smugness in Chris Myles's adroit performance, Brecht emerges here as a shameless opportunist. He may have promoted Fleisser's first play, but he imposed himself all over her second. He thrust on her a subject with which she did not feel comfortable; he made unauthorised changes to the text; he served the piece up in a production that courted scandal. And then he left her. He even had the nerve to tell her that "No woman ever died of crying". Ostensibly, this was part of a pep-talk about how women can't expect to retain female privileges and aim for recognition in the world of male achievement. But you feel that he saw that sentence as a personal challenge. No woman ever died of crying yet.
I'm not sure that Marieluise gives enough of an impression of the Ingolstadt plays for those unfamiliar with them, and it leaves some crucial questions underexplored. But its jagged technique is a homage to Fleisser's sensibility, and Whyman's excellent, phantasmagoric production seems to pull you right inside the mind of this remarkable, much-abused woman.
To 14 August (020-7229 0706)
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