sat 20/04/2024

Nachtland, Young Vic review - German black comedy brings uneasy humour and discomfiting relevance | reviews, news & interviews

Nachtland, Young Vic review - German black comedy brings uneasy humour and discomfiting relevance

Nachtland, Young Vic review - German black comedy brings uneasy humour and discomfiting relevance

Something to laugh at and plenty to think about in a tonally inconsistent 90 minutes

The cast of Nachtland - that's them in the spotlight, not losing their religionsEllie Kurttz

If Mark Twain thought that a German joke was no laughing matter, what would he make of a German comedy? 

That quote came to mind more than once during Patrick Marber’s production of Marius von Mayenburg’s 2022 play, Nachtland. I know it’s supposed to be funny (and it often is), but should I really be giggling? That's hardly an uncommon feeling watching a black comedy, but there’s something in the rhythms of Maja Zade’s translation and the bleakness of the Berlin period, Bowie inflected soundtrack that undercuts the guilty pleasure with an insistent Teutonic froideur. 

With antisemitism high on the news agenda and the rise of the rightwing populist party, AFD, in Germany infecting its politics, the insistence of von Mayenburg’s more philosophical concerns sometimes drowns out his absurdist comical ambitions. The tone never quite settles in a 90 minutes production that already has plenty to unsettle anyone in its busy, occasionally self-indulgent, script.

House lights up, the cast spend the first 10 minutes or so clearing the stage of the what we learn is the accumulated detritus of a long life (“I wish they’d come round to mine and do that,” whispered my brother sat next to me). Supplementing that unconventional start, the fourth wall is Immediately broken, which ropes us in as collaborators, a status that adds to the later queasiness brought on by the attitudes displayed by people who look and behave largely like we do – at least initially. Yes, theatregoers like us voted for the Nazis in 1932 and acquiesced in the horrors that ensued.

Pretty soon we clock Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Nicola as a narcissist and nail her brother, Philipp (John Heffernan, pictured above with Jenna Augen) as a fool, bickering over their dead father’s affects and affections. Even by German standards, Nicola is blunt, but she reveals something much worse in her vituperative othering of Judith, the excellent Jenna Augen, who anchors the play with a consistent moral standpoint as moral chaos threatens to consume her and everyone else.

The trigger for the mayhem is the discovery of a painting in the attic that has stayed fresh while evil has been perpetrated outside. Described (but not shown) as a daubishly rendered Viennese street scene curiously empty of people, its financial value suddenly spirals away from its meagre aesthetic underpinning when a signature is discovered – yep, A. Hitler. Myer-Bennett’s eyes positively shine as Nicola spies a six-figure sum. Judith, a Jew, is, mataphorically and literally, having none of it.

Enter Jane Horrocks, all but jackbooted up, as Evamaria, an expert on Hitler’s art, and an unrepentant admirer of the Führer’s service to the Fatherland – you can all but hear the ‘trains running on time’ trope on the tip of her tongue. Behind gigantic statement glasses, there’s a seductive polish in her academic presentation of abhorrent views, but that’s continually undercut by her appearance (design by Anna Fleischle) continually reminding us of Edna Mole from Pixar’s The Incredibles. Though a more obvious villain, she’s never quite as chilling as the avaricious everywoman, Nicola.

Angus Wright delivers a wildly over-the-top turn as her client, the fetishistic Kahl, who literally falls for the painting, overwhelmed by his proximity to the hand that brushed the paints on to the canvas and also signed the orders for the Final Solution. Tall, angular and with an accent carved in the English public school system, Wright has something of the mien of a certain politician, but his introduction (initially as an oiled-up leatherman) marks the play’s full embrace of the surreal, the comic now submerged beneath the absurd. 

He does get to expound on the more successful theme of the play, directly challenging us to re-assess the hypocrisy of divorcing the art from artist, but only when it suits us to do so. 

Usually, the debate is the framed the other way round – does what we know of (say) Caravaggio’s life detract from, even destroy, his genius as an artist? Should the works of a compendious list of antisemitic composers, novelists and playwrights, handily cited for our consideration, be disbarred from polite society? If your answer is “Hell, no. I’m looking forward to Oliver! in the summer thank you very much”, then can we not go the other way and, unpalatable as it may be, not ignore but import the artist’s notoriety to enhance the financial, if not the aesthetic value of art? After all, what is a painting for sale actually worth other than what a buyer is willing to pay? And isn't that their decision not ours?

The play has its flaws. Quite why the intelligent and principled Judith would be happily married to a klutz like Philipp makes little sense. Gunnar Cauthery is given a real hospital pass with the underwritten part of Fabian, Nicola’s weak husband. There’s an inscribed ring that is something of a clumsy McGuffin, acting as a convincer for the Kahl, keen to establish the painting’s provenance. Even in a play untroubled by any reach towards subtlety, the late allusion to the death camp’s shower rooms lands like a sledgehammer.

But it’s also thought-provoking, genuinely different and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. even as it makes you shift a little uneasily in your seat. With the Far Right’s rhetoric gaining ground all over the world, it may be springtime for Hitler’s apologists in democracies and autocracies alike, but, in the theatre at least, we can be unequivocally warned that antisemitism is never far from the thoughts of many people who might flatter themselves in thinking they’re above it.    

The insistence of von Mayenburg’s more philosophical concerns sometimes drowns out his absurdist comical ambitions


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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