Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 8 January, 2010

Dea Loher is much feted and admired as a dramatist in her native Germany. I’m not sure I entirely understand why. She has intelligence, ambition and playwriting skill, but the traits do not always coincide. On last year’s Edinburgh Fringe her solo piece Land Without Words received, it seemed to me, a production and performance of a far higher calibre than the self-regarding – even self-defeating – text deserved. Her 2003 play Innocence (Unschuld) is less off-putting, but scarcely more compelling in itself.
Essentially, it is a discrete series of scenes in several interwoven strands about people being unhappy, alone or together, whether connected by links which are real (the book which blind pole-dancer Absolute – yes, really – has lost, The World is Unreliable, is written by intellectual Ella, who never interacts with any other character) or artificial (Frau Habersatt has a compulsion for claiming to be the mother of various criminals and thereby eliciting sympathy from the victims’ families). Several strands are gradually drawn together, but not to any great effect; the play ends where it began, with Caroline Kilpatrick stripping off and walking into a video-projection of the ocean, or as the script now designates it, “the future”.
Helena Kaut-Howson’s production is thoughtful, to the extent of deliberately disobeying one of the playwright’s instructions and using black actors to portray the two black illegal immigrants, rather than the white ones Loher requests: “No need for pretence of authenticity,” notes the stage direction, which is rather less true in a country whose discourse of race and multiculturalism is more complex than that in which the play was written and is set. I do not think a British writer would be allowed to deploy such figures so baldly as emblems of otherness.
Kaut-Howson and her cast – which includes Maggie Steed as Ella and the estimable Meredith MacNeill as Absolute – also foreground the theatricality, discouraging us from getting lost in the story (such as it is): in this respect Loher is a child of Brecht. But this is the flabbier, triter Brecht. What does the play say? That we don’t connect, with each other or with the bigger economic and social pictures? That we avoid responsibility – are “innocent” in that sense? Hardly ground-breaking. Earnestness is not enough.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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