Griffin Stablemates: The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind) by Marius von Mayenburg
There’s a beguiling theatrical imagination at work in this production that’s every bit as charged -- as superheated -- as the sexual frustration which threatens to destroy each and every character in Marius von Mayenburg’s play.
The frustration is born of fear, I think. Fear of rejection. Fear of loneliness. Fear of loss of authority and influence. Fear of loss of desirability. Fear of vulnerability too.
The fear within Lena (Helen Christinson) is so strong that it manifests itself before her eyes. Within the structure of the plot, these tiny terrors of hers are like a switching device -- a spin-the-bottle randomiser -- that provokes unpredictable but equally heated responses from the equally messed-up people around her.
Helen Christinson as Lena (click on the image to enlarge)
Production photographs by Brett Boardman
The first manifestation happens after an incident in the women’s toilet of a bar where Lena has gone to vomit, having drunk herself stupid to insulate herself from her father’s vociferous badgering. ‘Daddy’ (Peter Talmacs) wants her to abandon her Egyptology degree to do some real work... like book keeping!
Partly undressed -- having vomited on herself -- Lena comes face to face with Henning (Guy Edmonds, left, click on the image to enlarge) who gets his kicks by exposing himself or quietly masturbating while listening to women in their cubicles. Understandably, Lena freaks out... and is much more than merely grateful to the man who comes to her rescue: Johann (Douglas Hansell).
In that moment -- when Johann’s fist connects with Henning’s face -- Lena becomes Johann’s. That was our marriage, she thinks to herself, afterwards. Here, reality (such as it is) blurs with a flashback in which Lena flees a rapist, crawls naked beside a highway and is rescued by a besuited man in a luxury car -- who covers her nakedness with his jacket -- and takes her away. She falls into dreamy, content and (relatively) safe unconsciousness, lying on plush upholstery as they drive into the Freudian night.
Is it a nightmarish sexual fantasy? Or a terrible memory? Von Mayenburg doesn’t specify. Anthony Skuse’s direction is similarly elusive. Not noncommittal, I hasten to add. Just brilliantly, shiningly ambiguous. For Lena, it doesn’t matter whether the attempted rape happened or not. Her fear is so deep-seated -- it has been with her so long -- that it is real to her. It is a tangible part of the blasted landscape of her psyche. And it’s one she’s come to rather like, perhaps. A fractured 21st-century fairy-tale built on ultraviolence.
Her knight in shining duco, Johann, has just been rejected by his girlfriend Melanie. He proposed marriage. She refused and, instead, called the relationship off. Johann is happy to have Lena replace his heartbreaker... he occasionally slips and calls Lena ‘Melanie’. (Then, later, he does it to spite her.) Johann even presents Lena with the same ruby engagement ring. At that moment, another terror intrudes. The ring box becomes a grenade in Lena’s hand.
“In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred...”In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred. It’s the one true passion. The abiding passion. The Family Value. It’s the essential repulsive force in the family nucleus. Daddy hates his elder daughter’s independence; ‘Mummy’ (Diana McLean) hates Daddy’s bullying.
Family friends Silke (Catherine Terracini) and Werner (Ryan Gibson) treat each other with utter contempt. Silke throws beer on their cold baby, in a pusher, to taunt Werner. She tells him: other people would have thrown the glass in as well. Cruelly, she goes off with Lena’s new husband to humiliate Werner... just as Johann goes off with her to hurt Lena.
The cold child’s fire-and-ice mother Silke (Catherine Terracini)
This isn’t a turgid, Sewellian tragedy, though. It’s a blackly funny erotic farce. It’s more French than German; viscously but not unrelievedly evil; it’s as breathtakingly sick and light-headed as François Ozon’s film Sitcom. It’s also reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s mass hysteria-inducing play Little Murders.
The only felicitous match-up in von Mayenburg’s play, teams Henning-the-flasher with Lena’s underage sister Tine (Claire van der Boom). Henning, however, is unlikely to fulfill the rampant Lolita imaginings of the bright eyed Tine, who calls his bluff -- and drops her underwear -- as soon as she encounters him.
As enjoyable as this script is, the great delight of the production is what Skuse and his cast make of von Mayenburg’s writing. The characters hit the ground fully-formed and running. They take some catching up, in fact! From the second they storm on-stage, they’re utterly in their skin... and, it must be said, in (and out of) some fabulous clothes, courtesy of designer Dane Laffrey.
This is such a different experience to Benedict Andrews’ imaginative but relentlessly grim production of von Mayenburg’s recent play, Eldorado, at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre last month. There was no room for emotional or sexual heat in wartime Eldorado. Money and success were more important than life itself.
In Andrews’ production, the action was set behind glass, nine huge panels of it. And for the first hour, all of that action happened in a strip, barely a metre wide, running the length of the window. The fourth wall was made of glass. The actors had to be amplified.
Like von Mayenburg’s writing, Andrews’ direction was varied and episodic, and rarely anchored to reality. It was coolly exhilarating... an intellectual mad-mouse ride. But still oddly detached. It had -- as the cast sang at one particularly Lynchian moment -- a heart of glass.
In the tiny Stables Theatre, Skuse’s production can’t help but be liquid and molten in comparison. But if the actors were intimidated by the task set them -- even Mummy drops her rammies at one stage to use the on-set toilet -- there wasn’t a flicker of apprehension. Not a flicker.
Von Mayenburg’s women are, on the whole, better formed than his men. They’re more complex, more interesting, more divided. The men have their themes, their melodies, and they don’t deviate much from them.
So it’s no slight on the men in the cast if the women, one and all, eclipse them totally. They’re dramatic danseurs... there to do the heavy lifting while the women dazzle us with their twisting, blindingly-fast kicks and fouettes.
And, one and all, the women are amazing. Christinson, McLean, Terracini and van der Boom. In terms of work-load, Christinson carries the show. She bares all, emotionally. But all four have cracked open their roles. All four blaze away.
Van der Boom reminded me of Frances O’Connor when she made her pro stage debut. And O’Connor was, no doubt, the best stage actor of her generation.
Diana McLean, immensely poised as ‘Mummy’
McLean is immensely poised, a definition of grace under fire. She revels in the role of wannabe widow.
And Terracini is constantly on the brink of detonation from go to whoa. Rather than being tiring to watch, the struggle-made-visible is energising.
This is a fringe show in name -- and perhaps crew and cast wages -- only. It’s thrilling, engrossing, stylish, effortlessly erotic and quite deliciously exasperating.