The Maria, Young Vic Theatre, London (****)
It’s funny the way some productions just stick with you. A couple of decades ago at least, I saw a production of Schiller’s The Robbers at the Gate Notting Hill. I think there was also a Buchner’s Woyzeck there at about the same time (though my own records don’t go that far back or if they do, they’re currently inaccessible).
German theatre was still then a fairly new thing to me. But there was something about The Robbers and Woyzeck, their desperate pessimism and individuals alienated and ground down by society that has stayed with me ever since.
Welcome then to their German contemporary, 70 year old Franz Xaver Kroetz who swings in and out of fashion here and his The Nest, picked up by Sam Walters at the Orange Tree in the early 1980s and then the Bush, when Kroetz’s Request Programme also had a run there. Since then we’ve had Southwark Playhouse staging Stallerhof in Maria Aberg’s incredibly restrained handling and Ann Mitchell and Simon Callow in Through the Leaves.
Kroetz works in miniature, holding up a mirror to the lives of `small people’, in The Nest, a lorry driver and his pregnant wife, working all the hours that god sends to make ends meet.
There’s a lot about The Nest that also mirrors Ken Loach, especially I, Daniel Blake. Both see the best in people. Loach’s Daniel Blake is no scrounger, but a fiercely independent, proud, working man caught up, as Woyzeck might be, in an alien, hostile, battering world.
In Ian Rickson’s lovingly directed, detailed Lyric Belfast-Young Vic co-production, Conor McPherson’s new version gives us an equally honest, hard working Irish worker, until that is, the pressures of earning more money and the unscrupulousness of his boss causes him to undertake an action the consequences of which all but scupper his marriage, his sanity, his new born child and force him to an almost impossible moral dilemma.
What is it to live a good, honourable life? What are the compromises you have to make to ensure staying in work?
I have a feeling that McPherson may have slightly softened the original’s edges. But the cumulative minutaie of domestic life seen as if under a microscope, the minimalism of the dialogue and the pure playing of Caoílfhíonn Dunne and Laurence Kinian break the heart.
There are few things more gruelling than watching Kinian eaten up by guilt, love and desperation, wailing and whimpering like a wounded animal, trying – and failing – to commit suicide. Or the luminous Dunne expressing a thousand silent moments of pain and despair with a mere shrug or glance.
In today’s frantic, frenetic theatre, that is Kroetz’s greatest gift , his use of silence as a weapon to underscore the inexpressible – inarticulacy in the face of extreme pain.
Socialist realism for the 21st century, now and again, there is a jarring note of absence. Reference to social pressures, directly driving the actions of Martha and Kurt as well as procreative ones, come indirectly. And at the end, it almost begins to sound like agit-prop for trade unionism.
But Kroetz is more subtle than that. With its moral and environmental slant (echoes of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People) in the end, this is a story of just two ordinary people trying to make a go of it.
Terribly, terribly moving.
By Franz Xaver Kroetz
In a new translation by Conor McPherson
Martha: Caoílfhíonn Dunne
Kurt: Laurence Kinian
Director: Ian Rickson
Set & Costume Designer: Alyson Cummins
Lighting Designer: Zia Holly
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Original score composed by: P J Harvey
Performed by: P J Harvey and James Johnston (Gallon Drunk, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)
Score engineered by: Adam `Cecil’ Bartlett and recorded in London
Movement Director: Andrew Dawson
Assistant Director: Rhiann Jeffrey
Presented by Lyric Theatre, Belfast and the Young Vic Theatre, London
First performed at Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Oct 1, 2016
First perf at the Young Vic Maria Studio, London Oct 28, 2016
The Nest runs in The Maria, Young Vic to Nov 26, 2016
Review first published for this site, Nov, 2016