Friday, 17 March 2017
by Anthony Neilson
Sanity On Trial
The gruesome tale of serial killer Peter Kürten, The Düsseldorf Ripper, executed in 1931, is surely a gift for any playwright with a mind to mine German language literature.
For the story, as related in a 1930s' sensationalist press and subsequent books including one by the trial psychiatrist, has so many echoes of literary classics. The Struwwelpeter scissorman, the grimmest of Grimm Fairy Tales, Wagner's Lohengrin, Kafka's The Trial as well as contemporary German and Hollywood horror films at a time when the two industries were intimately connected.
Yet Anthony Neilson, in one of his earliest playwriting successes, chose to interrogate the story through more forensic if also fantastical means. Normal is a memory play filtered through the mind of Kürten's defence lawyer, Justus Wehner, who finds himself in an amusement arcade outside Germany with his children many years later with a sideshow dedicated to his erstwhile client.
Normal then becomes an exploration and critique of the law, the legal profession, psychiatry and the media through a unique trio of characters. In this it parallels Fritz Lang's celebrated 1931 movie M, also inspired by Peter Kürten's crimes, where gangland has as much legitimacy, if not more, than the police.
Wehner (Corey Montague-Sholay) is a lawyer straight out of law school who is given a quasi-masonic leg up by his colleagues. They hand him the prestigious role of defence lawyer for Kürten (Richard Ede) when the trial is the subject of national and international curiosity.
His aim is to prove that self-confessed killer Kürten is not a "normal" murderer in control of all his faculties but a lunatic who has conducted a macabre stabbing, fire raising and murder spree. In this, it seems, he is willing to go outside Germany, enlisting the help of his parents to bring the anti capital punishment Humanitarian League to pressurize the authorities.
However his mission to convert his parents, the public, the jury and even the intractable Kürten to the cause thinly veils the overweening ambition of a swot. His subsequent emotional turmoil may even contribute to making a more monstrous situation as he succumbs to a version of himself which he believes Kürten has moulded.
A three-hander, it is the real or imagined character of Kürten, juvenile delinquent, petty thief, animal molester and slaughterer, sexual deviant, torturer, killer, trade unionist, husband and apparent respectable member of the community, who dominates.
Ede's dapper, grey-suited Kürten is naturally then at the centre of this universe with, as satellites around him, Montague-Sholay's buttoned up but easily corrupted lawyer and Cathy Walker's Frau Eva Kürten, the wife with a past.
Occasionally there is the danger of the plot becoming lost in over-stylization but for the most part the cast give elegant and visceral performances of great clarity.
And in the midst of it all there is also the suggestion of other plausible scenarios against the accepted version of the story, even if they seem like throwaway remarks: there may be copycat killings or Kürten may be part of a group of more than one killer.
As we have indicated, Emma Baggott's fluid yet sturdy production, like Blasted in the same season, opts for a stylized rather than naturalistic portrayal of violence, which mostly chimes well with a Germanic expressionist style.
While the subject matter is straight forward, if macabre, writer Neilson's exploration of post World War One Germany's complexities and a subtext relating the murders to the rise of National Socialism lifts the play over and beyond a mere chiller thriller. The lawyer, we are told somewhat ambigiously, managed to leave his homeland before he had blood on his hands.
A subtle, pulsing soundscape from Giles Thomas and a spare black-walled set from Grace Smart, with a chandelier of scissors hanging from the ceiling, a dining table with a chair at each end and a metal trolley prove a flexible background for the action.
Ciarán Cunningham's ingenious lighting almost becomes another character - flickering and flashing to reflect mental states. Regimented rows of lights on the table also dig into the psyche.
An illuminated wall transforms the action into a silent film. A sheet covering a body takes on a translucent quality reminiscent of horror movies like Frankenstein.
In short, an amber/green light for a thoughtful and forcefully-choreographed piece which we would recommend for strong performances as part of an agile, striking production probing troubled times and warped spirits.