Theatre:HUNTING SCENES FROM LOWER BAVARIA The Gate, London

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The Independent Culture
One of the greatest of the Gate Theatre's many successes was the 1991 production of the Ingolstadt Plays, Marieluise Fliesser's brilliant dissection of life in bigoted small town Bavaria among a generation shaped and perverted by the First World War. With Dominic Cooke's promenade staging of Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, the Gate returns to very similar territory and the results are almost as exhilarating.

The narrowly conformist rural society in Martin Sperr's play is captured in the aftermath of the Second World War. The grim economic depression of that time has only fertilised what appears to be a supreme natural breeding ground for prejudice, with the Bavarians resentful of the Silesians and with a population whose fake, formal Christianity seems to have taught them nothing but smug intolerance. It's a world that needs to find scapegoats and in Abram (Gerard Crossan), a young homosexual rumoured to have been in prison in nearby Landshut, it encounters someone who fits the bill perfectly. "People who go against nature have no rights" - and that's just the verdict of his shifty-eyed mother (Mary Ellen Ray) who is forced to shift from village to village pursued by gossip.

The play excites a keen sense of the injustice of all this, while keeping a remarkably dry eye trained on the various victims. Discovered comforting a mentally retarded youth whose missing father has recently been reported dead, Abram is wrongly accused of trying to rape him. This would seem a contrived and sentimental situation (two innocent outsiders huddled together against the world), were it not complicated by the curious stirring of sexuality as well as of affection in the surprisingly intense kiss the pair exchange. It's typical of Sperr's ironic approach that Abram's doom is sealed not by the episode with the mental defective but by his savage stabbing of the village prostitute (Anna-Livia Ryan) who claims to be pregnant from one of his desperate attempts to be "normal".

Played on various acting areas, with a splendid design by Robert Innes Hopkins that covers the floor of the Gate with earth and bark chips, this wonderfully performed production puts the audience in the thick of the action, so that you are often in danger of being run over by one of the religious processions or strangely medieval rituals of post-war rural life with which the play is punctuated. The cast boast a collection of faces that make you feel you've been sucked into an animated painting by Bruegel.

The evening ends with a beer cellar party, the villagers jubilant at the successful harvest and at having won the 2,500 mark reward for Abram's capture. So merry are they that they are only momentarily thrown off balance when somebody remarks casually, "If you ask me, with that sort around, we could do with Hitler back."

n To 22 Jul (0171-229 0706)

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