Everyone should shoot themselves at 17. So says the wild child Desiree in Pains of Youth. Penned in the 1920s and now revived by director Katie Mitchell – in period costume – this is Ferdinand Bruckner's morbid depiction of screwed-up Viennese students in Freud's era. It might well strike a chord with today's suicidal teenagers and twentysomethings, but little comfort is offered.
Pains of Youth certainly isn't going to satisfy the pleasure principle if you're after an entertaining night out. No fun is to be had with these decadent intellectuals. An incestuous knot of medics, unable to cure their own neuroses, they're insecure, sarcastic and sadomasochistic.
Their lodgings are subtly claustrophobic, shared by Lydia Wilson's sexaholic Desiree and Laura Elphinstone's Marie, her bisexually entangled friend. Marie's low-lit bedsit is invaded by gentlemen callers. Geoffrey Streatfeild's oily Freder is a sociopath who plays corrupting mind-games with the maidservant, and who assaults those who resist his advances. He and the majority of his fellow sophisticates are either savagely jealous or cold control-freaks.
It is intriguing to see this inter-war German-Austrian classic (in a new English version by Martin Crimp). Bruckner's characters are, socially, one generation on from the adolescents of Frank Wedekind's risqué 1890s Spring Awakening: no longer directly repressed by their elders yet, in their liberated excesses, just as unhappy. Mitchell's non-naturalistic scene changes point to the future as well, and to forces beyond Marie's clique. Brusque figures, in modern suits and surgical gloves, are seen placing booze into the frozen protagonists' hands, setting them up for further trouble.
Mitchell is alert to the period of composition, drawing comparisons between the play's jumpy, startlingly modern dialogue and the contemporary atonal music pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. A programme note underlines how classical music's patterns of tension and release were rejected in favour of tension followed by more tension.
Accompanied by edgy dissonant chimes, this chamber production can be electrifying. But musical parallel is pushed too far. Tension followed by tension becomes theatrically wearisome over two-and-a-half hours. With the emphasis on hectic talk, rather than close line-readings, Mitchell's cast are remorselessly febrile.
Last week there were, in fact, a triple whammy of dramas zeroing in on the agonies of youngsters. If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, by an outstanding fledgling playwright, Nick Payne, centres on an obese 15-year-old called Anna (excellent Ailish O'Connor). Suspended from school for socking a bully, she ends up at home under the wing of her dodgy young uncle, Terry.
Rafe Spall is superb as Terry: an immature waster with a psychotic track record. Enthrallingly ambiguous, he veers between hilarious matey gaucheness and looking like a sinister creep. When he drunkenly reels into Anna's bedroom and sprawls on top of her, crawling up the duvet, he tells her not to worry because she's beautiful.
Josie Rourke's production is marred only by one caricatured performance, Michael Begley making Anna's academic, ecology-obsessed father a ridiculous flailing nerd. In compensation, the young writer has a remarkably mature grasp of narrative shape, with many a sharp twist and tentative hope emerging at the end. In particular, O'Connor's shift from amusing surliness to suicidal despair is heartrending, most unforgettably in a bathroom scene with just a razor blade and wordless, hyperventilating panic.
In Nicholas Wright's biodrama Mrs Klein, revived by director Thea Sharrock, the Viennese-born child psychotherapist Melanie Klein (Clare Higgins) has found a refuge from Nazi persecution and established her practice in Hampstead, north London. Now she has another battle on her hands, with Dr Melitta Schmideberg, her own wounded and professionally combative daughter.
Over a long night of reckoning in Klein's womb-red study, Zoe Waites's acerbic Melitta accuses her mother of early neglect and all-consuming egoism. Then she announces that Klein's second child, Hans, has taken his own life. Higgins' splendidly lived-in performance embraces domineering arrogance and frazzled tenderness. A third, less established émigrée-analyst, Nicola Walker's Paula, hovers on the sidelines. Sometimes rudely ignored, sometimes caught in the crossfire, she secretly hankers to become Klein's new patient and substitute child.
Maybe this shrink play, with everyone perpetually analysing one another, needs to be taken with several pinches of salt. Excuse the metaphor, but it's hard to swallow all Klein's obsessive theories about the maternal breast. Still, Wright himself can be satirical too. If this 1988 play hasn't exactly come of age, it has sturdily stood the test of time. And Sharrock's trio of actresses is top notch, sharply yet warmly portraying obduracy and suppressed grief. Commended.
'Pains of Youth' (020-7452 3000) to 21 Jan; 'If There is I Haven't Found It Yet' (020-8743 5050) to 21 Nov; 'Mrs Klein' (020-7359 4404) to 5 DecReuse content