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Pains of Youth, National Theatre, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Thursday 29 October 2009 01:00 GMT

Camus thought that, in philosophy, suicide is "the only problem". It may not be the sole preoccupation of the six bored, sexually entangled medical students in the 1920s Vienna of Ferdinand Bruckner's brilliantly odd 1923 play Pains of Youth. But it is seen as one of only two alternatives open to the young in a post-First World War Austria of widespread social disillusion and personal instability. The play receives a very rare revival now in a Cottesloe production by Katie Mitchell that will, I suspect, divide critics in the manner that is traditional with this controversial director's work. I thought the play blackly exhilarating in its ruthless (often mordantly amusing) anatomy of anomie. I thought the strategic take-it-or-leave-it stealth production (as usual with Mitchell, one might have chanced upon a tribe that is so mesmerically intent on its own practices that it has not noticed the "concealed" observer) arrestingly pivoted at that point where the different leylines of painful tragicomedy exruciatingly cross.

The play is set in a room in a boarding house that is about to be vacated by a aristocratic student who has just taken her finals. As she mops the floor, she tests another alarmingly assured young girl who has lesbian longings for her on the finer points of "advanced tuberculosis with cavitation". You couldn't exactly subtitle the piece, "Doctor in Trouble" (though one visiting woman does get chained by her own hair to a bedstead with predictable results on the privacy front), but it often made me laugh out loud as these trainee medics ponder the pathology of their condition. "Stimulus – then mental event – then autosuggestion with the added refinement of an occasional scream" is how one bare-chested young man (who has spent two years in prison for killing a baby with the wrong medicine) defines pain during a dinner party that – with its Sapphic duo, and the contagiously amoral eternal student, Freder (a spot-on Geoffrey Streatfeild) – occasionally reminded me of the Lawrence of Women in Love and the Noël Coward of Design for Living. "Added refinement" is a touch of comic genius.

The students are morbidly conscious of all their impulses, right down to the sub-volitional. A certain kind of reviewer may complain that they don't connect what's going on in their turbulent insides to the body politic enough (if at all). But the analogy would be with Doctor Faustus. Marlowe didn't need to mention the plague, a crucial context in a play about a diabolically purchased 24-year lease of life because the plague was literally in the very air the audience breathed. Mutatis mutandis, this goes for political crisis and Pains of Youth.

The production has a stunningly imaginative coherence of style. Objects are brought on swathed in polythene and episodes set up by a team who look like a cross between crime scene investigators (here paradoxically helping to resuscitate the metaphoric crimes we witness) and more than usually anal flight attendants flourishing trays of food. "Can I help you to another emotional atrocity, sir?" At one point, in what is either a supreme instance of this tactic or a potty reductio ad absurdum, one of these unspeaking flunkies brings on a glass of medicine on a tray, whips off the polythene and hands it to a character who promptly takes it off stage to minister to a female figure who is only a couple doses away from suicide.

There are certain cynical souls who think that my recurrent four- and five-star ravings about Mitchell is the career-conscious gambit of a dead white male critic who wants to blarney his way into being granted a clean bill of health. To which I can only reply that I am happy to take any reputable lie-detector test on the market.

To 21 January (020-7452 3000)

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