Adaptors: Simon McBurney, James Yeatman, Maja Zade and the Ensemble
Director: Simon McBurney
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Pity is one of the most complicated emotions; on one hand, it speaks of compassion and thoughtfulness for others while, at the other extreme, it can be patronising or give the recipient false hope. Based on a novel by Stefan Zweig, theatre company Complicite has joined forces with Schaubühne Berlin to bring Beware of Pity to the Barbican stage in a remarkable piece of cross-European collaboration that examines the consequences of pity and the effects of memory.
Shortly before the Second World War, Lieutenant Hofmiller recalls a period in 1914 where he became close to the Kekesfalva family and becomes close to paralysed daughter Edith for whom he feels only pity. As the months pass, Hofmiller becomes increasingly embroiled in their lives, visiting every day, which encourages Edith to think of him as a suitor. Afraid of her nervous rages and suicidal threats, Hofmiller is forced to go along with it, but as family secrets are revealed and the shadow of war looms, will he achieve the freedom he craves?
Beware of Pity is an extraordinary Russian doll of a drama, told in two hours with no interval, in which new pieces of plot are gradually revealed to the audience, taking the story in unexpected directions and utilising a range of techniques to add to the unfolding tension. Its tiny domestic plot becomes a convincingly sprawling drama that becomes ever-more complex but, despite its run time, manages to entirely hold the audience’s attention from start to finish. Every new twist and revelation is a tease to ensure the viewer is never quite sure whether the ending will be happy or not.
It is a story told from entirely one perspective; it is Hofmiller’s recollections, so we can only witness things he observed or imagined, but its brilliance lies in being able to suggest multi-perspectives and conflicting motivations at the same time, revealing many layers of memory and emotion. The company has seized the layering idea and used it to innovative effect; in several sections, the words of one individual are spoken by individual members of the ensemble, so one speech has many voices, which is one way of building tension and doubt in Hofmiller’s mind amid a cacophony of extraneous noise.
Director Simon McBurney uses layering in a number of other ways throughout the play, placing narrative from the older Hofmiller over scenes from his past, using just the sound of voices telling the story on a darkened stage and, in the show’s finest scene, in playing out four levels of memory at the same time, as older Hofmiller recalls his younger self consulting the family doctor, who in turn recounts the night Kekesfalva revealed his secret, who himself remembers when his luck changed in a train carriage. It is an extraordinary moment of theatre that stands out in a slick and charged production.
The performers are not credited to particularly characters as each takes on multiple and even the same roles, but Laurenz Laufenberg gives a very fine performance as the conscience-stricken young soldier who cannot escape the mess he has created, while Christoph Gawenda’s elder Hofmiller is full of guilt and regret that becomes very affecting.
Anna Fleischle’s deceptively simple stage design, with scattered tables and microphones, works beautifully with Will Duke’s video design to suggest castle terraces and the march of armies, while Peter Malkin’s sound effects add to the creepy feel of the castle. Flieschle’s moveable glass box becomes the centrepiece, though, cleverly transforming into offices and train carriages, but most importantly it represents the museum cases in which important artefacts are stripped of their context, sanitised and reimagined – underlining Zweig and McBurney’s theme on the ways in which history and memory are crystallised and contained.
Beware of Pity does demand a lot from its audience and, while it builds tension superbly, there are arguably a few too many dramatic moments that occasionally make it feel longer than it is. Nonetheless, it is a vivid examination of the nature of memory and the accident of history that places its characters at the centre of great events. If it is necessary to counter recent debates about the influence of European ‘theatre-makers’ then Beware of Pity is the antidote, because this magnificent collaboration deserves to be seen.
Runs until 12 February 2017 (and available on Complicite’s Youtube Channel from 12-26 February) | Image: Gianmarco Bresadola