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A CurtainUp London Review
Stallerhof is set on a small German farm. The design portrays an earthy, grimy domesticity with stark yet dusty lighting. Steel pails, wooden furniture and piles of wood chips litter the floor. The heavy wooden beams are encircled by barbed wire, reflecting a sense of vague menace within the rough homeliness. With blunt realism, when the characters sit down to a meal, there is authentically smelling gruel and authentically noisy eating.
The central figure is Beppi (Matti Houghton), a teenage girl with heavily rimmed, obviously mended glasses and childish dress. Described as "backward" by her parents, she is unloved and criticised constantly. For example, when she stammeringly misreads a letter, she is unceremoniously slapped with the suggestion that perhaps fearful hesitancy is the cause of her mistake, not mental deficiency. Matti Houghton handles this difficult part with assured expertise, evoking sympathy without cloying pathos for this innocent victim.
Beppi's parents (Michael Gunn and Alwyne Taylor) inhabit the top level of the household's clear, heartless hierarchy. Another character, of subordinate stature similar to Beppi's, is the seasonal farmhand Sepp (Roger Ringrose) with his beloved dog (Monty Thomson). Five years from retirement, he grossly takes advantage of the underage Beppi and her absolute naivety. Nevertheless, a strange, shy tenderness arises between them. Due to Kroetz's complex sensitivity and Roger Ringrose's acting skill, Sepp emerges as yet another victim of a human society which lacks humanity. The relationship, exposed by the uncomprehending Beppi's pregnancy, is inevitably doomed, and culminates in a heartbreaking canine murder and Sepp's banishment.
This is a very short production (running at just 65 minutes), but is uncompromisingly intense. In a series of naturalistic glimpses, the play contains little overt exposition. Instead, the audience witness revealing vignettes of everyday lives with the subtle significance of ordinary scenes.
The elliptical narrative gives a gripping sense of primitive, inescapable doom. The performances are compelling and well-directed within the play's unrelenting bleakness. This is a disturbing evening of sinisterly unexplained issues within a claustrophobically intimate space. In 2003 the Southwark Playhouse's production of Kroetz's Through the Leaves transferred to the West End to great critical acclaim. This production of the West German playwright's masterpiece is a worthy successor.
Link to our review of
Through the Leaves
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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