Royal Court, London SW1
THIS MAY turn out to be the most controversial Royal Court production for over a decade. It all depends on how the theatre’s traditionally leftwing audience reacts to a play which portrays the man behind a campaign of terror as a bead-worrying, Muslim doctor of philosophy.
That there are Muslim conspirators plotting to destroy British society is beyond doubt. But imagine that this version of Max Frisch’s 1958 play — translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Ramin Gray — revealed the figure behind the conspiracy to be Jewish. How would Jews in the audience feel? How then, do Muslims feel? Assuming Gray and the Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke are alive to these issues, they have clearly made the judgment that, for this revival to chime with post-7/7 Britain, the risk of offending Muslims is worth taking.
Frisch’s original theme was Nazism, asking to what extent society is complicit in the rise of fascism? But here the question is, will we be destroyed by the those who we let into our home? Frisch’s fool is the jittery Biedermann (Will Keen), a wealthy hair-restorer manufacturer who lives in a town that is being destroyed by arsonists. Though he is about to be the next victim, Biedermann is no innocent. His refusal to share his profits has resulted in the suicide of his business partner.
Perhaps it is his guilt that explains his tolerance of two sinister homeless men in his attic. Even when he discovers that the pair (Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Chahidi) have installed oil drums in his roof, Biedermann is still in denial. “He won’t call the police,” chime the chorus of fire fighters, “because he is guilty too.”
It might be oversimplifying things to view Biedermann as representing a society whose liberal tolerance of immigrants is based on guilt; and the philosopher (played by Munir Khairdin) as embodying the extremist ideology behind militant Islam. But it is tempting. ( Tel: 020 7565 5000)
Young Vic, London SE1
THIS revival of Peter Weiss’s verbatim work based on the transcripts of the 1963 Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, is a harrowing uninterrupted 80 minutes of testimony and atrocity cut down from the original five hours.
What gives the play an entirely new viewpoint is that it is performed (in French with subtitles) by a company of Rwandan actors just 13 years after the genocide that took place in their country.
The reasoning behind Dorcy Rugamba’s simply staged production, in which each member of a whitesuited cast play both witnesses and defendants, is that when it was staged in Kigali, it allowed Rwandans to confront their atrocity by viewing someone else’s.
That purpose is lost at the Young Vic. But building on the notion that the Holocaust is a story that should be heard by everybody, Rugamba teaches the lesson that it can be told by anybody. Where I fear that lesson fell on deaf ears is with the members of the audience who walked out during the sickening descriptions of atrocity and sadism perpetrated by the Germans in Auschwitz.
I can understand the decision not to go to a play about Auschwitz because it will be too upsetting. But the decision to go should be made with a determination to stay. Almost as uncomfortable was the celebratory whooping at the end of the play. ( Tel: 020 7922 2922)
Almeida Theatre, London N1
CARYL CHURCHILL’S gender-bending, time-distorting comedy was pretty radical when it was first seen in 1978.
The first act, which is set in a British colony in Africa, takes Victorian attitudes by the scruff of the neck. At the centre of a dysfunctional family is patriotic patriarch Clive (James Fleet), whose wife Betty is played by a man; their young son Edward is played by a woman, and their black servant is played by a white actor.
In the second act the play shifts to the late ’70s, although characters are only 25 years older.
Thea Sharrock’s production gets a lot of enjoyable mileage out of lampooning patriarchal attitudes. And the evening is a fascinating lesson in acting. It is remarkable how James Fleet’s Cathy — a (moustachioed) little girl — becomes just another character.
But Churchill’s target of establishment attitudes either no longer exist or only survives in different contexts.
In other words, the play is dated. ( Tel: 020 7359 4404)
Will Keen lights up as his city is threatened by Muslim arsonists in a controversial updating of Max Frisch’s play