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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Stone

My grandfather is my role model because he stood by his friends and was persecuted by the Nazis because of it.— Hannah
The Stone
Justine Mitchell as Mieze, Linda Bassett as Roswitha and Jonathan Cullen as Wolfgang
(Photo: Simon Annand)
Marius von Mayenburg's last play The Ugly One was nominated in the awards for best new play and so his new play The Stone comes to the main house at the Royal Court with high expectations. The Stone is not as showy a piece as The Ugly One but is a complex piece of writing threading back and forth from 1935 to 1993 and looking at German history through the occupants of a house in Dresden, East Germany.

As von Mayenburg writes, the people who live in this house tell of the persecution of the Jews at Kristalknacht. They live through the bombing of Dresden by the British in the Second World War, the invasion of the Russian Forces in 1945, the division of Germany into East and West and the reunification of 1990. Each scene closes with a thought that is repeated in the opening lines of the next, decades later or earlier. So Mieze (Justine Mitchell) says in 1935, "Would you like another coffee while we wait?" and Stefanie (Amanda Drew) replies in 1993 to Heidrun (Helen Schlesinger) saying, "I don't want any coffee thank you, I'm here to bother you."

Of course as history is told, people cover up their part in the more embarrassing episodes. Witha (Linda Bassett) is the grandmother whose husband Wolfgang (Jonathan Cullen) bought the house from a Jewish family in 1935. Mieze, who is Jewish, and Witha sit and talk while their husbands negotiate the price, except that this isn't an even handed negotiation. The Jewish couple are allowed to take only a pair of suitcases and have to leave most of their possessions, furniture and a piano behind. When Witha's grand-daughter Hannah (Loo Brealey) has to name someone in school that she sees as a role model, her mother Heidrun suggests her grandfather Wolfgang. Hannah tells her classmates that her grandfather gave money to a Jewish family to allow them to escape in the 1930s to America. I'm not entirely sure whether this is the spin that Witha put on it or Heidrun but the fact was that Wolfgang drove a hard bargain for the house from people who had no choice but to accept his terms. There was nothing charitable or kind in what he did but this story has become family mythology.

While Hannah is extolling her grandfather's reputation in 1993, Witha has to explain to Heidron in 1953 why she had an SS badge and why Heidron is named after a goat in Nordic mythology. Stefanie is the granddaughter of the East German who moved into the house when Witha left and who is forced to move when the owners reclaim the house. Stefanie is this unsettling figure who met Witha and Heidron in 1978 when they promised her chocolate and with the uncompromising memory of a child she expects 15 years worth of chocolate now in 1993. Stefanie has grown up thinking her parents died in a car crash but she suspects that they left her to escape to the West.

The resonances of von Mayenburg's play will mean more to Germans than it does in Britain. The story of the house is the story of Germany: dealing with the terrible guilt of Nazism, the anger over the bombing of Dresden, the privations of the Eastern sector as opposed to the West, are all reflected in The Stone. The stone of the title is one thrown through the window at Wolfgang. Was it thrown, as the family say, because he was being kind to Jews? No, it was thrown because the mob did not realize the Jewish family had left. So even a piece of hard evidence like a stone can change its significance in the light of what is an acceptable memory.

The ensemble performances are excellent with weary, spin meistress Witha played by Linda Bassett as the serene grandmother. She seems so genuine, so truthful, someone you can trust and may have repeated the lies so often, that she now believes them. With her hair escaping from a bun, she keeps her family together by reinventing the past or by hiding under a table during the bombing. Amanda Drew, in an army green anorak, petulantly demands her chocolate and Helen Schlesinger intelligently tries to unravel the mysteries. Jonathan Cullen looks on, shifting awkwardly, seeming hunted until he decides, like his Führer, on suicide.

Johannes Schütz's striking, bright white cube set has no exits or entrances as all the family are onstage at once like their memories in the house. Costume is the only clue as to era but Ramin Grey directs lucidly so that, being slightly prepared, I was not at all confused by the switching scenes but from the chatter in the bar afterwards, there were others who obviously were. The Stone is a slow burn which bursts into flames as you think about it.

The Stone
Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Ramin Gray

With: Linda Barrett, Justine Mitchell, Helen Schlesinger, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Cullen, Loo Brealey
Design: Johannes Schütz
Lighting: Matt Drury
Composer and Sound: David McSeveney
Running time: One hour 10 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 28th February 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th February 2009 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)

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