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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sweet Nothings

I write of love and death. What other subjects are there? — Arthur Schnitzler
Sweet Nothings
Kate Burdette as Christine and Tom Hughes as Fritz
(Photo: Ruth Walz)
David Harrower's new translation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1895 play Liebelei as Sweet Nothings makes a diverting production at the Young Vic with Swiss born Schnitzler expert Luc Bondy directing. From the Austrian author who gave us the scandalous (for its time) La Ronde and more recently the film Eyes Tight Shut, this play about the spoilt young men of the 1890s and their disregard for women has a powerful moral content.

The play opens on a very stylised art deco black and red circular set, a raised playing area which is a perfect circle, carpeted in bright red. Fritz (Tom Hughes) is dreaming, maybe having a nightmare, as his friend Theodore (Jack Laskey) walks, balancing on the perimeter of the raised circle. Fritz and Theodore will entertain two girls, the good time girl with the heart shaped face, Mitzi (Natalie Dormer) and the shyer Christine (Kate Burdette). Theo is brutal and shallow while his brooding friend Fritz avoids questions about the mysterious woman in the black velvet dress whom Fritz was seen with at the opera. It becomes apparent that she is a married woman and the thrill of the illicit affair has made Fritz infatuated and pre-occupied.

Fuelled by alcohol, the men selfishly mistreat the women and I found this act quite sinister and unpleasant as these spoilt, aimless individuals look for cheap thrills but remain unsatisfied. Mitzi is willing to play along with the orgy while Christine imagines herself romantically involved. Although this production of the play seems set as late as the 1930s, the original was written in the naughty nineties of the nineteenth century where hedonism and decadence were the order of the day.

The arrival of the mysterious woman's aggrieved husband, sobers up the young men to the potentially disastrous consequences of Fritz' actions. Fritz is shocked and Theo seems be less of a dilettante, suddenly showing his officer capability, acting sensibly for once as he hastily gets the drunken girls to quieten down. We don't hear the challenge to a duel, just the request for seconds to call but the intrusion is momentous and foreboding.

The second act is set in Christine's pink and white bedroom where the participants are the the upright citizens, Katharina (Hayley Carmichael) and Christine's father Weiring (David Sibley). Hayley Carmichael gives a very funny study as the priggish neighbour, a hairnet holding in her strict hairstyle, resentful and nosey and she searches out bad news to spread vicariously. Her view of "that Mitzi girl" as someone who is no better than she ought to be, has her speaking with a vitriolic passion as if Katharina has Tourette's Syndrome and is swallowing the insult.

The performances are excellent. Natalie Dormer's animated Mitzi and Jack Laskey's controlling Theo are two knowing participants in drunken sex while Tom Hughes' naive Fritz and Kate Burdette's innocent Christine both search out romance but not mutually. The strongest emotion engendered is the shock when Theo violently tips Mitzi completely out of bed and onto the floor by turning the mattress on its side.

There is no doubt that this is a very competent production of Schnitzler's play, a rare event in London and valued for its rarity but for my taste the plot is overly contrived and the message artificial.

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Sweet Nothings
Written by Arthur Schnitzler
In a new version by David Harrower
Directed by Luc Bondy

Starring: Natalie Dormer, Jack Laskey, Kate Burdette, Tom Hughes, Hayley Carmichael
With: David Sibley, Andrew Wincott
Set and Lighting: Karl-Ernst Herrmann
Costumes: Moidel Bickel
Sound: Gareth Fry
A co-production between the Young Vic and Wiener /Festwochen and Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 10th April 2010 then touring to Northampton, Kingston, Coventry then Austria, Germany and Madrid
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th March 2010 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8LZ (Rail/Tube: Waterloo or Southwark)

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