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Just a few comments to supplement MKS on The Arsonists, which we saw at the Royal Court yesterday, and which I then read this morning (the Royal Court does a neat thing by providing the play text as the programme).

First, the audience, which seemed (as ever at the Royal Court) to be made up partly of people you half think you should half recognise (and who clearly think they should be the centre of all attention), and partly of big-haired young women with startlingly affected voices. There were many batches of young people whose behaviour and, even more noticeably, speech suggested they hadn’t yet grown their brain cell. There were dowager duchesses who clearly regarded everyone else as inferior, and men with male pattern baldness who still managed to drag whisps of hair into ludicrous pony tails. And the noise, in what is, after all, a small theatre, was horrendous; it wasn’t that anyone was shouting, just that nobody there imagined there was any need for them to lower their voices. At one point I turned to MKS and mouthed: ‘I’m going deaf’. And, of course, it is invariably the people with seats in the middle of the row who turn up at the very last minute.

And miraculously, this riot of a rabble actually managed to fall silent when Will Keen walked on stage.

MKS has already praised the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Eisenring, but to that I should add praise of Will Keen (who we last saw as an anarchist in The Coast of Utopia) here being perfect as the nervous and conventional Biedermann, and Paul Chahidi (who I don’t think we’ve come across before) who was mesmerisingly still in the role of Schmitz.

I’ve never come across The Arsonists (or should I say, Biedermann und die Brandstifter) before, and I was delighted with the play. It is an almost archetypal exemplar of the Theatre of the Absurd, particularly with the way that everything proceeds with a ruthless logic. The whole play depends upon one conceit: that the more you tell the truth, the more people will choose not to believe it. When Eisenring coldly describes their method of setting off a false alarm to lure the fire brigade away, Biedermann responds: ‘But joking apart …’

Reading the text so soon after seeing the performance, I was struck by a number of changes, each small but curious. For instance, at the end of Scene One when the leader of the Chorus stubs out his cigarette, it turns into an odd little song and dance number; but that isn’t in the text.

And there is the Doctor of Philosophy. Over on Maureen’s journal there is a discussion which suggests that the Doctor had a long speech in the original, but not here. In fact the only significant thing he has to say is drowned out by noises (both in the performance and in the text). I couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing in this character, as if he should do more in the play. If he really did have longer speeches that were cut in Alistair Beaton’s new translation, that might explain things. Though I’m not at all sure why he wasn’t therefore cut out of the play completely, since he serves no fully developed function now.

Still, other than that one quibble, this was a fascinating production that I would urge you to see.

First published at LiveJournal, 5 December 2007.

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