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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Arsonists
Royal Court Theatre Autumn 2007

Max Frisch's 1958 play (also known as The Firebugs or The Fire Starters) is a parable of the impotence of good people in the face of determined evil.

As such, it has some thematic similarities to Ionesco's Rhinoceros, which is about the individual's inability to fight the forces of conformity, and the Royal Court is doing both plays, with the same actors, on alternate nights.

In a city living in fear of arsonists, a stranger cons his way into the home of a businessman through a mix of flattery, fast talk and quiet menace. Soon he has brought in a friend and barrels of petrol, while their hapless host tries to convince himself this is all some sort of practical joke even as they enlist his help in setting fuses and borrow his matches.

What drives the central character, Frisch tells us, is simply the inability to live every moment on high alert, even if circumstances require that.

'I can think what I want,' he says in Alistair Beaton's new version. 'I have the right not to think anything at all.' And later, 'I can't live in fear all the time.' But of course it is just that self-protective wilful blindness that the dedicated evildoers count on.

(In 1958 the play could have been read as a retrospective explanation of how good Germans allowed the Nazis to come to power or as a more contemporary analysis of quiet acquiescence to the coarsening of everyday life. Today it has eerie overtones of living under the threat of domestic terrorism.)

If I've made it seem dramatic or intellectually stimulating, I apologise.

The play is a parable, and thus inevitably somewhat simplistic and unsubtle.. Frisch was a disciple of Berthold Brecht and openly uses the tools of spell-it-all-out didacticism. But, as with Brecht at his worst, the explicitness and relentlessness of both the explanations and the heavy-handed ironies become wearing and wearying.

The play says everything it wants to say within the first twenty minutes, and then just keeps on repeating itself. You keep wanting to shout 'O.K. We Get it!" until the constant hammering away drains your energy and you just wait for it to end.

None of this should take credit away from director Amin Gray or the admirable cast, who do what they can. The always welcome Will Keen, who actually came into the production late to replace another actor, brings so many colours and subtleties to the central character that he almost disguises how one-dimensionally it was written.

Paul Chahidi and Benedict Cumberbatch effectively convey the different sorts of menace of the two interlopers, the one thuggish, the other bearing the cool confidence of authority.

Given a single note each to play, Jacqueline Defferary as the host's confused wife and Zawe Ashton as a suspicious maid carry themselves well. The Greek-style chorus of fire-fighters is particularly awkward and ineffectual.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Arsonists - Royal Court 2007