Simon Stephens/Odon von Horvath
14 May 2015 to 13 June 2015
Big, bold and brillianntly provocative, this opening theatre production at HOME is quite a calling card for a new cross-arts venue that has set its sights, not just on thrilling Manchester audiences but on establishing itself as a European centre of excellence.
It’s fair to say that it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste and that there’s not really a lot of fun either in Stockport-born writer Simon Stephens’s adaptation of a 1932 play ‘Kasimir und Karoline’ written in German by Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth. He’s hardly a household name in the UK, although Walter Meierjohann, HOME’s Artistic Director: Theatre, looked very disappointed in me when I recently admitted that I was completely unfamiliar with the play. Simon, though, adores (his word) his work, having been introduced to it by Sarah Frankcom, now Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange when she was Literary Manager there and Simon was Resident Dramatist.
So the play has more Manchester associations that one might initially assume, thus playing very neatly into HOME’s aspirations. Moreover, the action, originally set in Munich at the height of the recession towards the end of the twenties, on the cusp of the rise of the National Socialist Party, has been updated by Simon to contemporary Manchester. He, like Walter, perceives a real contemporary relevance to the play and observes that he “loves the idea that, in my version, von Horvath’s constellation of characters will be telling their stories a stone’s throw away from the site of the Hacienda nightclub, which I often went to when I was their age.”
In fact, he goes further and credits von Horvath with predicting “many of Manchester’s dramatic literary traditions. There is a compassion for the poor and a celebration of their capacity for poetry and wonder in the play that is more likely to be found in the works of Shelagh Delaney or Jim Cartwright or Alistair McDowall (another MTA success, folks!) than in Brecht. That tension between a flinty examination of the lives of the skint, the drunk and the disenfranchised and a faith in their capacity to reach for the poetic seems to run like a vein through much of Manchester’s culture.
“I wanted to write The Funfair because von Horvath’s play speaks so startlingly about Britain now. It may have been set in 1920’s Munich but I know of few other plays that so directly dramatise what it feels like to be alive today.”
Which would all be so much PR cant, of course, if the play simply didn’t speak to the audience at HOME, which, on balance, it did. I’m sure neither Simon nor Walter would be surprised to hear that there were people there who, even if they loved the new space and the way the production (designed by MTA-winning Ti Green) indisputably looked stunning, simply didn’t like the play, finding it rather too bitter a pils to swallow.
And it was undoubtedly tough to watch. Basically, it tells the story of the disintegration of a relationship between Cash (Wigan-born Ben Batt), embittered after losing his job, and Caroline (Katie Moore, nominated in last year’s Manchester Theatre Awards) over the course of a night at the fair. Characters like the terrifyingly misogynistic Frankie Marr (Michael Ryan), his woefully put-upon girlfriend Esther (Victoria Gee) and the drunken, corrupt authority figures Billy Smoke (Ian Bartholomew) and David Spear (Christopher Wright, a familiar Library Company face and thus another link to HOME’s antecedents) constantly reappear and add to the overwhelming sense of dread that drenches the production. Adding to the general sense of dislocation and carnival weirdness, proceedings are narrated by a classic carnival character Tiny (James Lusted), a garishly made up rock-band punctuate the action with live music, drunken revelers wander in and out of the proceedings and there’s even a Freakshow.
It all looks fantastic and is full of real “wow!” moments – earlier in the day’s Opening Celebrations Walter had talked about a cinematic quality that he was looking for in HOME’s productions - but it’s a very long way from the relatively staid repertory theatre tradition represented by the old Library Theatre Company and, for that alone, will no doubt disturb some theatre-goers. Too bad, I have to say. That was then, this is now and HOME has arrived with quite a bang, even apart from the Opening Night fireworks outside.
Reviewer: Kevin Bourke