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A CurtainUp London Review
Pains of Youth
Linked to various movements and philosophies of the time, especially New Objectivity and Freud, the characters of the play have lives of theoretical richness but emotional bareness. Crimp's translation effortlessly conveys these various theories and the students' own medical esotericism with fluent, contemporary dialogue, as well as hinting at a widespread moral miasma in this era just before the rise of the far right in Europe.
The plot follows six medical students, in all their neuroticism, intelligence and morbidity. The setting is Vienna, in a boarding-house in 1923. The students are preoccupied by exams, revision and promiscuity in an entanglement of desire, passion and unhappiness.
In an excellently menacing, bullish performance, Geoffrey Streatfeild takes on the predatory, amoral role of Freder, who mercilessly manipulates and controls those around him. Possessing the clearest insight but also the most destructiveness and power, he coldly propels the innocent maid Lucy (Sian Clifford) into prostitution and supplies fatal drugs to the suicidal without compunction. Meanwhile, the ineffectual Petrell (Leo Bill) discards his lover Marie, played by the angular, sincere Laura Elphinstone, for the hard-hearted, ambitious Irene (Cara Horgan), but Marie is in turn soon seduced by the aristocratic Desiree (Lydia Wilson) whose wildness is only tempered by disillusionment.
Vicki Mortimer's set is meticulously designed, to the point of reproducing the awkwardness of reality. Even two rooms adjoining the stage and for the most part invisible are fully contrived to extend the illusion and suggest that the play's action does not stop as soon as the stage does. Among many such apparently superfluous details, lamps are used, but not before the electric cords are painstakingly stretched across the floor and plugged in.
The one truly Katie Mitchell-style innovation in this production is linked to this exactitude of detail. Scene changes are managed by the cast, dressed in executive black suits and plastic gloves, like post-mortem investigators or perhaps agents of assassination. They remove objects in plastic sacks, cover or reveal furniture with polythene wrappers, and administer drug, alcohol and lit cigarettes to the characters.
The sense of forensic sterility is both the production's strength and weakness. Clinical and cold, it is often difficult to engage with the play in spite of the intellectually satisfying production. With a vivid, if chilling, array of dysfunctional characters and a nexus of desire, infidelity and despair, this production of Pains of Youth is true to Bruckner's intention: a grim, dark portrait of harrowing emptiness.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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