Muzik, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The last Waltz is a season of little-known plays by great fin-de-siècle German and Austrian playwrights: Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler and, opening proceedings, this bitterly sarcastic chamber tragedy by Frank Wedekind.

The last Waltz is a season of little-known plays by great fin-de-siècle German and Austrian playwrights: Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler and, opening proceedings, this bitterly sarcastic chamber tragedy by Frank Wedekind. The project has a quixotic, even perverse side. In a programme note, Mark Rosenblatt, the season's producer, talks of the difficulty he had finding plays to fit - he contacted German dramaturgs, and "none could suggest anything undiscovered and brilliant by Wedekind".

But it is not as if productions of Wedekind's acknowledged masterpieces - Spring Awakening, the Lulu plays - are two-a-penny in Britain; and plenty of material that is well known in Germany has hardly been seen here. When a play is "undiscovered", may there not be good reasons?

In Neil Fleming's translation, Musik does indeed emerge as a deeply flawed play, but it is also funny, disturbing and gripping. Wedekind wrote it - in a hurry, Fleming suggests - in 1906 in response to new, stricter laws against abortion. The story revolves around Klara, a nice, bourgeois Swiss girl who has come to Munich to study singing and lodges with her teacher, Josef, and his wife.

As the play opens, she is packing her bags in a state of high nervousness. Enter Else, Josef's wife: in a conversation brilliantly charged with malice and irony, we learn that Klara has been having an affair with Josef, has become pregnant and had an abortion. Now, the abortionist is on trial and Klara, as client and co-defendant, must flee the city to avoid jail.

The play proceeds through a series of dialogues, in which Klara's basic innocence and propriety are contrasted with the self-satisfaction and hypocrisy of those around her - Josef, Else, the warder and the governor of the jail where she spends some time, and a moralising radical journalist. Polemic morphs into tragedy, as we find Klara living in poverty with an illegitimate, dying child. The transition is not wholly convincing and makes for an unsatisfactory denouement.

Deborah Bruce's production is pacy and sharply intelligent, though it contains some unnecessary touches - entrances and exits are marked by a black-out and tinkling music. Jon Bausor's design maroons period furnishings in the Arcola's bare, industrial space to good effect, though I was mystified by the apparently symbolic wires that stretch across the back half of the stage (towards the end, with some drama, they are cut).

In a fine cast, Lucy Briers' neurasthenic scorned wife and Deka Walmsley's somewhat smug Josef stand out. Mariah Gale is a strong central presence as Klara, though perhaps a little too buttoned up - at the start, it is hard to believe she could ever have had an affair. A welcome rediscovery, and warmly recommended: but I can't help wondering what the assembled talents could have made of Wedekind's really good stuff.

In rep to 7 May (020-7503 1646)

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