Only a few days ago I was enthusing about the revival of David Harrower's first play Knives in Hens; now he pops up again as the writer of a new version of Arthur Schnitzler's 1895 play Liebelei at the Young Vic, in an international co-production directed by Luc Bondy which will return to Schnitzler's home city at this year's Wiener Festwochen, which Bondy runs. I have to say that Sweet Nothings is a thrilling show in which Bondy extracts some astonishing performances from young actors, some of whom are right at the beginning of their stage careers. Before reading the rest of this review, get on to the Young Vic box office and see if there are any tickets left. If you're in Kingston, Northampton or Warwick, (or for that matter Vienna, Recklinghausen or Madrid) find out when it's coming and book your tickets now.
I turned up at the Young Vic not knowing quite what to expect; despite working for three years in Vienna in the 1970s I never went to see a Schnitzler play. And my knowledge of Luc Bondy is also pretty slight; he's one of the big cheeses of continental director's theatre, spent his early career in West Berlin with Peter Stein and has recently been best known as an opera director. His updated setting of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera was roundly booed last October, though for some bloggers that was just a sign of an ultra-conservative audience nostalfic for the previous Met production by Zefirelli. Bondy and his designer Karl-Ernst Herrmann set Sweet Nothings (a better translation of the title Liebelei than Stoppard's Dalliance) on a revolving platform up to which the characters climb using narrow steps. Sometimes they jump up or down into the pit five feet below; it gives the action a very fluid feel but puts the actors in a slightly perilous place where one false step can mean a fatal loss of balance. On a second preview, one might have expected an occasional missed step or wobble, but the cast were all millimetre-perfect, rolling around on the floor, climbing on to the piano and balancing glasses and bottles to perfection. God knows how many hours of rehearsal it took. Act one opens with Theodore and Fritz, two young Viennese men about town and reserve officers, entertaining two girls of much lower social status to an evening of flirting, snogging and drinking which is obviously destined to end in bed. (That is Bondy's version -- I have no idea whether Schnitzler's original is more restrained). Mizi is what the Parisians of the period called a cocotte -- the pretty milliner's assistant who is no better than she should be and, like Theodore, knows the rules of the game. She is happy to dally around with smart young gentlemen and doesn't mind if they transfer their favours elsewhere. Her friend Christine comes along for the fun but is truly smitten with Fritz. He in turn is falling for Christine, but the fly in the ointment is his existing relationship with a mysterious married woman whose husband may suspect what is going on. The drink flows and the four young people spin around the stage and start to loosen their clothes, but the party is interrupted by the husband who challenges Fritz to a duel. From this point on, the tragic ending is easily foreseeable. How Schnitzler gets there is interesting. In act two he focuses on Christine's modest home life, with her musician father and the prying neighbour who knows she is spending time walking out with an unknown man. Then Fritz appears, unable to tell Christine the truth about where he is going. The dramatic irony (we know what's going on but she doesn't) is the key to the play's powerful ending, when Theodore appears in his army uniform, no longer tousled and fun-loving, to report Fritz's death. Christine collapses in grief and has to be physically held down in a tussle that forms a macabre echo of the erotic tumblings of act one.
The cast is uniformly excellent; Jack Laskey is an experienced and very distinctive actor who conveys volcanic intensity without overdoing it. I've seen him several times at Shakespeare's Globe, as well as in the RSC's The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton's Music Hall. As Theodore, he brings a slightly manic quality which Bondy uses to drive the frenzied atmosphere of act one. As Fritz, recent RADA graduate Tom Hughes makes his professional stage debut. He doesn't dominate the stage the way Laskey does, but manages to convey the character's uncertainty. Fritz doesn't know if he is cut out to be a cynical seducer of married women or a romantic lover, and is torn between the two. As Mizi, Natalie Dormer (another stage debutant) is a delight to watch. She gives an astonishingly assured performance, bubbling with vitality and very sexy without falling into caricature. As the love-struck and less experienced Christine, Kate Burdette is outstanding, and the older characters played by Hayley Carmichael, David Sibley and Andrew Wincott are just as good. The strength of this production lies in the level of emotional truth which the actors manage to generate. Harrower's resolutely contemporary text helps them a great deal, while inevitably distancing the play from its 1890s setting. The costume design by Moidele Bickel suggests an updating to the 1920s or 1930s without being too precise. This loosens up the play and brings it closer to 2010, at the expense of making elements of the story such as the duel with pistols rather less plausible.
I have often argued against the urge to update late 19th century plays which are often too embedded in their historical context and place to be easily moved. Chekhov and Gorky are the main examples. In the case of Schnitzler, the disadvantage of Bondy's updating is that the social status of the characters gets blurred. We don't sense the inequality between the two upper-crust young bloods and the lowly shopgirls they have invited for a good time. It all seems a bit like four young students who are up for a night of casual sex. Sex and death are the same for everyone, in Schnitzler's view, and it seems to me the play has on balance gained in immediacy from Harrower's resolutely modern rewriting and Bondy's decision to take the play out of the world of Kaiser Franz-Josef and bring it closer to the present. As someone who is not a big fan of continental director's theatre in general, I tip my hat to Luc Bondy and to everyone involved in this production. And another thing -- I only paid £15 for my ticket, which in London these days is more than a bargain.