Marius von Mayenburg’s breakthrough 1997 play is a dark tale of one nuclear family playing with fire. But there’s a lack of dramatic tension here — a case of being lost in translation?
Written in 1997, Fireface was Marius von Mayenburg’s breakthrough play, which has now been seen all over the world. Fans of the dark British television comedy, The League of Gentlemen, may recall the fictional village of Royston Vasey, definitively xenophobic and a little too much “all in the family”. Fireface is similarly dark, though less leavened by humour and similar, too, in its claustrophobic zeroing in on one particular nuclear family, in which the teenage children are playing with fire, literally and figuratively. Kurt (Darcy Brown) suffers from pyromania and, to make matters even more incendiary, he’s engaged in an incestuous relationship with his precocious, provocative sister, Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson).
Stories Like These’ resident director Luke Rogers is at the helm of this co-production, partnered by ATYP’s Under The Wharf programme. The ATYP’s reasonably large space is defined by, as I remember it, a square timber plinth, on which is centred a table and chairs. It’s the very picture of an austere, middle-class German home, one imagines. But there isn’t much warmth in the hearth. Or heart. Only the excessive heat inappropriately fiery passions. Overhead, a Damoclean ceiling (that hinges on a line of dialogue) hovers; an inverted bed of nails. It has an angularity that goes to the asymmetrical nature of the family living, precariously, below. The stage is, thus, set for a twisted tale of sociopathology.
There’s certainly no sturm und drang apparent in von Mayenburg’s restrained style. In this, Rogers’ dry, academic directorial approach seems entirely relative. If anything, there’s more in common with pre-Romantic rationalism and aestheticism. That’s all very well, insofar as building suspense by emphasising the extremities of repression that pervade this family (and probably all families). But even the moments of emotional breakout seem relatively tame and ordered. It’s more Grimm than Schiller. I find this emotional tightfistedness frustrating and compromising. Beyond communicating the repression intrinsic to the fucked-up family portrayed, it makes for a repressed form of drama. Ironically, a lighter touch, or grip, would’ve allowed more intensity and, certainly, spontaneity from the actors, who are all quite fine.
Lucilla Smith’s design, as described above, is compelling and Sian James-Holland meets the challenge of a breathtaking number of scenes with faultless precision in lighting cues. Angharad Linley has her work cut out, too, as stage manager. Not a beat is missed. Of special note is Nate Edmondson’s portentous, reverberant sound design. The earth moved for me, time and again.
Brown is engrossing as the corruptible Kurt, whose mother (Lucy Miller) finds a medium-rare blackbird, wrapped in newspaper, behind the garage. Understandably, she’s alarmed by his inexpert but obsessive barbecuing, while his father (James Lugton) barely acknowledges any problem, putting it all down to puberty blues. Kurt doesn’t have much time for either of them and neither does Olga. In fact, by many and various means, they seem hellbent on defying their parents, who they see as almost beyond contempt. So, where’s the problem? Well, the devil is in the detail, I suppose. Kurt and Olga tend to go to extremes. In Kurt’s case, he prefers to express himself explosively and is prone to calmly reciting his favourite bomb recipes; while Olga is more partial to being the bombshell, openly fantasising about conquest, even while otherwise engaged, seducing her susceptible sibling. Meanwhile, mum and dad aren’t really talking. And there’s no more conjugation than conversation between them. Yep. It’s just one big, happy family. Well, one small, miserable one.
Mum tries to cope with the lack of intimacy by bathing in full view of her son, insisting it’s normal and natural. They’re a family. Dad buries his head in macabre articles in the newspaper, with which he has a morbid fascination. Things get lively when Olga, who can be found most nights sleeping with her eager and increasingly dependent brother, capriciously selects a boyfriend, Paul (Ryan Bennett). The mild-mannered Paul has a bike. By dint of his surprising innocence, he’s in for an even greater shock when he makes inevitable discoveries, not least as regards the cosiness between Olga & Kurt.
Unfortunately, while Bennett is up to the task and Brown nails Kurt’s cool disturbance, Irwin-Simpson seems a little lightweight in the role, not entirely convincing as coquettish jailbait. Miller’s characterisation is robust, though she doesn’t seem entirely at home in the role; a little constricted, by her usual standards. Nonetheless, she does communicate something of the sense of a woman tying to hold her family together, in spite of everything; conflicted by anger and frustration born of unrequited yearning for attention and affection. Along with Brown, it’s Lugton who best surmounts this production, as the man who sublimates his own issues by absorption in tabloid reports of what gruesome murders which seem so comfortingly remote and which dwarf clear-and-present dysfunction. Here is a man trying to be a man, as defined by consensus popular culture, but finding himself reverting to rather juvenile coping mechanisms.
Fireface seems, to me, of no great dramatic moment. Perhaps Maja Zade’s translation doesn’t do it justice, but I don’t find von Mayenburg’s prose to be especially precise or pithy. The strength of the work lies in its provocation to (re-)examine out own lives, attitudes, habits and families. In The League of Gentlemen, proprietors Tubbs and Edward Tattsyrup insist to out-of-towners theirs is “a local shop, for local people”. By inference, they’re also insisting on their normality. As we are all want to do. Which makes it all the more worthwhile to take another good, long, hard look in the mirror, every now and then.
The details: Fireface plays ATYP’s Studio 1 until August 17. Tickets on the company website.