Writer: Carl Djerassi
Directors: Andy Jordan and Jake Murray
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
One clue that this was going to be a cerebral piece was Ana-Sofia Londoño’s design: the unchanging set is a book-lined study, with a few sticks of brown furniture to evoke the academic taste of the late 1960s. There’s little of the personal touch, and all the books are reversed so that we don’t see their spines. This may have been expedient (job lots of Dan Brown are presumably easier to source than Hegel’s complete works), but the blanks also hint at the play’s weakness: this is arm’s-length drama. Too much — dreams, memories, letters — is experience at one remove from the present moment, and that risks turning the stage into a talking shop.
Four of the characters are historical figures, including three who are supposed to be “intellectual giants” of the 20th century. Anyone unaware of their achievements will not be enlightened by this play, which in any case seeks to strip away their celebrity and speculate on their entangled private lives. What’s left over, however, simply doesn’t live up to its billing as a “brilliant psycho-sexual thriller of betrayal and revenge.”
A fine cast do their best with material that is unpromising dramatically. Andrew P. Stephen is a bulldoggish Theodor Adorno, Jilly Bond his dutiful wife, Gretel. Bond not only endows her character with a measure of dignity (Gretel is a woman who has sacrificed a career for her husband), she has to handle some rarified dialogue (at one point she accuses her husband of “coital dialectics”). Judi Scott plays Hannah Arendt as a Teutonic battleaxe in black, who has “to smoke to breathe” and who is as intellectually combative as Adorno. Strangely, she is the character we’re most likely to warm to (until she tries justifying Martin Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies).
Lesley Harcourt is the fictional Felicitas, the aspiring young scholar who brings these three characters together with her claim to have found the contents of Walter Benjamin’s briefcase, which went missing when he committed suicide in 1940. She sees Adorno and Arendt as her meal ticket to an academic career, and so she resorts to a very unconvincing form of blackmail.
The object of everyone’s interest is the long-dead philosopher, Benjamin, who once corresponded with a youthful Gretel while she was in Berlin and he in Paris. We switch seamlessly from the 1960s to the 1930s for these brief interludes of epistolaryforeplay. Laura Hanna, her red lipstick and blue dress standing out against period drabness, is the eager recipient of Benjamin’s thoughts on, among other subjects, quivering wombs. Mark Oosterveen is oddly mesmerizing as the unprepossessing philosopher, already an intellectual star but now on the run from the Nazis.
Foreplayturns out to be a fecund literary device: it’s the foreword of a book, or the teasing revelation of Felicitas, or the intimate contents of letters exchanged during wartime. There’s also the more traditional variety, the preliminaries offered by the Parisian bordello in Adorno’s dream. It may seem ironic that Carl Djerassi, of all people, should focus onforeplay. After all, the inventor of the contraceptive pill changed the world when he made possible consummation without consequence for women as well as men — except, of course, that isn’t quite the whole story. As one of the themes of this play explores, sex is as much in the mind as to do with bits of the body. The pill may prevent pregnancy, but it cannot re-engineer the evolutionary architecture of our minds, which remain fully tooled up for each one of those consequences (including sexual jealousy).
This production is based on an edited version of Djerassi’s 2011 text, and although the cuts have got rid of phrases like “terminological infelicity” the dialogue still tends towards the unwieldy, although there are occasional comic moments (the difference between kinky and perverse got the biggest laugh of the evening). The play may not be a successful thriller or fascinating biography, but it does convey the aridity of the kind of theorizing that passes for scholarship in certain quarters of the academy. It’s not giving anything away to suggest that the final line could refer to the play itself: “it was just an idea.”
Photo: Andreas Grieger | Runs until31st May