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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olga's Room
Arcola Theatre  January 2013

For decades, Olga Benario has been held up as the model female revolutionary: her short life was dominated by socialist fervour and a brief, passionate love affair, and ended at the hands of the Nazis in 1942. There have been biographies, films, even operas about Benario, and 'Olga's Room' is the latest in line: the English language premiere of Dea Loher's acclaimed 'Olga's Raum', from 1992. 

Unfortunately, in this messy production by Speaking in Tongues Theatre Company it is difficult to see the spark that must have been in the original production, which shot Loher to lasting success as a playwright in Germany.

There are too many problems here for it to be evident who is most at fault in this brutal, yet curiously unmoving biography of Olga's time in a Brazilian prison. The cast of four are certainly not helped by David Tushingham's clunky translation, filled with exchanges that fall far of naturalism but are not quite stylised enough for this to seem deliberate. And Samuel Miller's unimaginative, by-the-numbers direction does little to elevate the production into anything greater than the sum of its lacklustre parts.

The production suffers additionally from the fact that its two strongest performances are also its most underused. Olga's cellmates are perhaps the most interesting element in what should have been a deeply compelling story all round; little is seen of them, but Sheena May manages to imbue seventeen-year-old Genny with quiet dignity and even a little humour, while Ceridwen Smith is at first steely, then irreparably broken as Ana.

The second act is stronger than the first, at its strongest when the cellmates share the stage, but unfortunately they feature very little in the first, as it has something of a preoccupation with the prison's torturer, Filinto Muller, played with hand-rubbing glee by Pete Collis. 

Muller is apparently a defector from the socialist party, who left to seek power in the regime, but this intriguing backstory is largely neglected in favour of a series of oddly sexualised interrogation scenes, where he seems to be seeking absolutely no information at all, and simply desires to have the female prisoners bound and at his mercy.

As neither the repercussions behind the heavily implied sexual violence nor its origins are actually discussed in any depth, it feels sensationalised, pointless and extremely tasteless. This is torture for titillation, to shock, it is beautiful women silent in chairs while a laughing man holds a blade to their skin: it feels out of place and deeply gratuitous in what should be a play about one woman's strength, courage and defiance. These are shock tactics and they shock for all the wrong reasons.

Finally, it is Olga who feels truly missing from this production, the real Olga, as Bethan Clark's strangely unemotive central performance lacks power and conveys little of the passion that drove Benario to take the risks she took, risks that led to her imprisonment and death. A play that should show us the soul of a revolutionary fails to show us much more than her subjugation, in spite of its best intentions.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Olga's Room - Arcola Theatre 2013  

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