“There’s a naked man in here who says our children should be committed”
Tucked away in the intimate Clare studio at the back of the Young Vic is Fireface, a 1997 work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Sam Pritchard, the winner of the 2012 JMK Award for visionary new theatre directors. And with the aid of an intriguingly strong cast and Amanda Stoodley’s wide chipboard frame of a set, forming a timber cage for a dysfunctional family to play out their not-inconsiderable dramas, Pritchard has certainly made the most of his opportunity.
Quite how one judges his measure of success though is a matter of debate. He clearly has a keen eye for the highly theatrical: switching from having the actors sitting facing the audience and speaking their lines out to us rather than to each other to a more naturalistic style with a dizzying frequency and overlapping the scenes to increase the disconcerting effect of estrangement. It initially feels apt as a way to evoke the disquiet at the heart of this family home where Kurt and Olga are seething with teenage injustice, railing against their distracted parents and exploring an increasingly too-close bond full of burning desire.
The tension between the two styles is never quite satisfactorily resolved though, the figurative levels of Maja Zade’s translation somewhat at odds with Mayenburg’s indictment of the bourgeois middle classes, and Pritchard doesn’t quite marry everything together. Visual ideas like the imprisoning red tape are left under-developed with little sense of the set ever representing something bigger, more societal, to justify the larger metaphor at work here; and the lack of time spent delving into the psyches of these teenagers – especially the sexually questioning Olga – means the realistic side lacks bite too.
But there’s strength in performance too which helps to hold the production together. Helen Schlesinger and David Annen lend immense class to the parents blithely sure that all the incest and psychosis going on under their nose is just a phase, William Postlethwaite’s interloping new boyfriend forms a neat counterpoint to the screwed intensity of Rupert Simonian’s Kurt and Aimeé-Ffion Edwards confirms her onward rise to becoming one of our most interesting young actresses as she wrestles the slipperiness of Olga nearly into submission.
At times striking, at times frustrating, Fireface is rarely dull and whilst it may never become truly compelling, for me I’d say it is an interesting enough piece – with its cast and with its directorial enthusiasm – to merit investigation.