Theatre; Mensch Meier Haymarket, Leicester

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The Independent Culture
Franz Xaver Kroetz (born 1946) is the most successful and widely produced German dramatist since Bertolt Brecht, although he's not exactly a household name here in Britain. This is no fault of the Leicester Haymarket, a theatre that began championing Kroetz's work in 1992 with Julia Bardsley's unforgettably intense promenade production of Dead Soil.

As a succinct deterrent, that title could scarcely be bettered, but the play itself proved to be a wonderfully compelling evocation of the fate of refugees, of pioneers turned victim, mediated through a stark, grown- up variant of the Hansel and Gretel story.

Linda Marlowe, who directed Kroetz's Through the Leaves at this address, now returns to the studio with a moving, bleakly funny account of the 1977 play Mensch Meier. "Before you even get going, it's all over," declares Otto, a forty-something "auto-screw-installationist" on a BMW assembly line. As a summing-up of what life is, this has affinities with Beckett's "Born astride a grave". The difference is that, whereas Beckett aspires to characterise the condition of man in general, Kroetz, who was once a Marxist, seeks to analyse the specific social conditions in which certain men and women are trapped.

In the disintegration of the Meier family, the play dramatises the difficulty of opposing, even in the closest relationships, the values of the prevailing economy. Otto - whose overbearing bluster and insecurity are brought out in all their comedy and pathos in Paul Hamilton's fine, Geordie-accented performance - converts his anxieties about work, where there are mass lay-offs, into jeers of irritation at his unemployed son, Ludwig (Daniel Brocklebank). Feeling failures themselves, he and his wife Martha (Sadie Shimmin) do not question, as the son does, whether the particular rat race they are competing in is a just measure of success for a human being. By the end, the mother and son have established some tiny measure of autonomy, whereas Otto's desperate dreams of escape - imaged by his hobby of flying model aeroplanes - are themselves infected with the values of the prison.

The production, which makes frequent use of spotlight to dramatise the various psychic configurations, unfolds in abrupt, captioned scenes on Simon Frearson's arresting, all grey-and-white set. But if there is a sense that these people are specimens, the strength of the acting ensures that there is no belittling, clinical detachment towards them. True, Kroetz is a master at fixing on moments that satirically expose capitalism's grubby imprint, as in the scene here at the supermarket checkout when Martha, who has been robbed by her son, discovers she hasn't enough money in her purse to pay for the goods.

To Otto, who has just been commenting with a touch of gossipy Schadenfreude on how you can tell that certain people are unemployed from their meagre baskets, this is public humiliation on a par with being forced to run naked through the shop. "Will you look at what I married!" he exclaims, as he wriggles past his wife and airily disowns her. What gives the play its power, however, is its principled recognitionthat, though people are shaped by social forces, they cannot be written off as merely the sum of them.

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