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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Pains of Youth
Cottesloe Theatre Winter 2009-2010

The original title of Ferdinand Bruckner's 1926 drama translates more accurately as The Disease of Youth, and his subject really is the collection of emotional confusions and neuroses that are more-or-less endemic to adolescence - though his characters are actually in their twenties and may be a more concentrated collection of troubled souls than you are likely to find together in real life.

At any rate, at least in this new version by Martin Crimp, Bruckner's characters do seem sometimes to be luxuriating in pains they bring on themselves.

While there will be a couple of broken hearts and one death before the end, you can't escape the feeling that these students and university hangers-on are really just playing at alcoholism, drugs, lesbianism, hypochondria, despair, debauchery, love, jealousy and Japanese dance.

As one might say of many teenagers today, if they manage somehow to make it through this stage, they will all very probably settle into the nice bourgeois lives they were aiming toward.

And so we have the neurasthenic rich girl, and the feeling-things-too-deeply hard worker, and the weakling who needs a woman to take him in hand, and the plodding girl ready and able to do that, and the self-hating failure who does what he can to bring everyone else down, and even a country-girl chambermaid all too ready to be casually seduced and put on the game (and the very British 'put on the game' is one of the few ear-disturbing slips in Crimp's translation).

And frankly it is difficult to care.

Maybe the fact that young people can be neurotic isn't as big news to us as it was in 1926, but Katie Mitchell's strikingly lifeless National Theatre production doesn't do much to make it seem real or relevant.

Despite all the high and low passions being bandied about, too many in the cast too often just recite their lines in a dead monotone, with little evidence of feeling or even understanding what they're saying. Far too much of the play is performed in very low light, so that it may not be until the curtain calls that you actually see any of the actors' faces clearly.

And for some reason Mitchell has imposed on the play a staging device of perplexing alienation, as all the scene changes are performed by a troupe of anonymously-dressed robotic functionaries who move about with cold efficiency to bag up discarded props like MI5 agents stripping all the evidence out of a safe house. What they have to do with the play is very unclear, but their effect is to repeatedly stand in the way of any emotional connection with the characters.

I have seen the play before, and there is a human story in there somewhere, however dated it may be. But you'd be hard-pressed to find it here, and there is little to recommend beyond isolated moments in some of the performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Pains of Youth - National Theatre 2009