As was the case with so many of the tragic heroes that came (and went) before him, it is Hofmiller’s weakness, not wickedness that leads to his downfall. The young officer has committed two social errors, one forgivable and the second less so. His first mistake, a trite faux pas, was asking incurably lame Edith, a wealthy landlord’s daughter, to dance with him. The real sin, mind, was to react with no heed to the caution of this play’s title, and to stab at atonement by bringing Edith all the roses money can buy – not as a token of adoration, but as a sign of cold, flaccid pity.
It’s hard to tell where to look in this production, presented by Complicite (London) and Schaubühne Berlin. The ensemble dribble the narrative around the stage like a basketball. Actors lip-synch, puppet-like, as other ensemble members pick up their lines. The script is fragmented, multi-vocal, playful and alive. Furniture flies across a stage that is as busy as it is sparsely decorated, carrying characters with it. We’re at the desk of the older Hofmiller, as he recounts the events leading up to his downfall; simultaneously, we watch as his younger self reluctantly courts Edith. We visit a doctor’s office, a sanitarium, a passenger train, a wine bar. Trapped in her father’s estate, her sense of loneliness taking up more space than her frail body ever will, Edith sits limply on a table that swings from one side of the stage to the other.
Meanwhile, beyond this delicious feast of ensemble-driven storytelling, a video backdrop brings us to the broader historic context that can’t be delivered on stage – a barren war zone where Hofmiller seeks to extinguish his misery, or the full moon that brings a Gothic edge to Dr Condor’s pessimistic prognosis. Photographs burst into the projection to furnish Hofmiller’s recollections with evidence – then blur into single pixels as he battles to grasp a troubling history. The projection then brings the focus onto the minutiae we can’t see from the auditorium. Magnified, a pair of hands nervously caress each other; a face in close up, illuminated by a dizzying self-worth, brings clout to Hofmiller’s volatile, short-lived status: “With nothing to offer but pity, I had so much power over other people”.
Appreciated one at a time, Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin are each a treat for the eye and the intellect – brought together they make for a veritable power-couple, a match so spectacular you’ll want to stock up on confetti. In Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel, they’ve found a feisty common-ground, and the result? A precocious offspring that is bursting with a shape-shifting creative energy under Simon McBurney’s direction, yet is simultaneously a fully-fledged and visually elegant piece. It’s a thoroughly commendable portrait of a rather reprehensible character.