Marcuse their words
Theatre editor Steve Cramer finds one of the hits of the season in an emotionally-charged political drama from 1970s West Germany, Tom Fool.
The idea that a compelling night of theatre can come from Herbert Marcuse’s ideas about the way in which capitalism impinges upon, and ultimately destroys the organic self, replacing it with an emotionally, socially and sexually dysfunctional reified being might at first seem improbable to you. Yet, here it is, a meeting of the psycho-sexual self with the harsh exteriors of everyday life, which compels one through a deeply emotional human comedy-drama, in which the economic pressures and stringent political conformities of modern Western life are constantly and subtly connected to the action.
The striking thing about Franz Xaver Kroetz’ 1978 piece is its astonishing contemporaneity and relevance. It’s surely no coincidence that at around this time Kroetz departed the orthodoxies of the German Communist Party and embraced a New Left form of Marxism, something that might only be of incidental historical importance, but for the fact that his characters here speak the consumerist pieties and bourgeois aspirational ideology with a striking resonance to today’s forms of neurotic affluence. Fears of looking like the lower middle class working folk that they are, anxieties about money and their standing in the community resonate with today’s culture, where pub talk falls lightly upon terms like ‘pikey’ and ‘chav’ as if these were somehow not as demeaning as ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ - a culture where fear of the other has been mainly transferred onto the working class.
Here we meet Otto (Liam Brennan) and Martha (Meg Fraser) a fortyish couple schooled in the certainties of Adenauer’s West Germany, who seem settled in a vaguely neurotic way. Constant watchers of television, they resemble a kind of Teutonic Royle Family, each cherishing small dreams and aspirations, going through familiar bickering, and quietly repressing a succession of anxieties to do with anonymity and poverty. The breathtakingly anal, and quietly comical Otto fantasises about being a world-beating model plane ‘pilot’, while his wife counts blessings belied by her domestic slavery. When new forms of ‘rationalisation’ occur, Otto’s job is threatened. From a penny pincher, he quickly becomes a monster, and a family row with his teenage son , a source of Oedipal fears, is sparked, inevitably, over money. Family life collapses into violence under ideological pressures that the family has long since ceased to recognise.
Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis’ translation bounces along through its many short scenes in Clare Lizzimore’s acutely observed, sensitively created production. Paul Burgess’ design, complete with all-embracing 70s wallpaper, and the familiar Formica of the period sets this off beautifully, as does the David Bowie music. The acting, as well, is absolutely tremendous. Brennan’s Otto, whose social and political impotence is finally manifested in physical form, as his atomisation is such that he is unable even to masturbate, is fraught with a tragedy made more powerful by the fact that the very conformities he embraces for comfort are precisely what crush him. Fraser too, is outstanding - a carefully nuanced, brilliantly created character who epitomises a tentative, emotionally uncertain struggle against half-recognised oppression. Madden is also strong.
These characters, trapped and dying of politically imposed loneliness, each finally isolated in flats, bedsits and working barracks, will transfix any audience, for they break the great political taboo of our age, recognising the emotional repressions necessary to the maintenance of economic hierarchy under modern capitalism.
Tom Fool, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 18 Nov