Innocence @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Miranda Cook, Michael Fitzgerald, Alexander Gilmour, Chris Hannon, Caroline Kilpatrick, Meredith MacNeill, Nathaniel Martello-White, Ann Mitchell, Okezie Morro, Ellen Sheean, Maggie Steed

directed by
Helena Kaut-HowsonEnglish theatre has a strong tendency to ignore what’s happening on the European mainland. We welcome new writing (to some extent) from British and American writers but don’t keep up with the generally more forward-thinking and adventurous work taking place over the channel. ‘Twas ever thus.

This ignorance of European drama makes the Arcola’s two-play glance towards Germany (Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz opens next month) all the more valuable. Dea Loher is one of the most distinctive playwrights working in the German language and the Arcola’s new production of her 2003 play Innocence gives a fascinating insight into current trends, characterised by a departure from the naturalism that plagues English drama.
There’s something of Heiner Muller (Loher’s teacher), Handke and Fassbinder about her style, although she’s undoubtedly a writer with her own voice. The nearest local equivalent is probably Howard Barker, whose muscular, poetic style has always set him slightly apart from his contemporaries.

In this play Loher blurs theatrical boundaries and employs a bewildering array of alienating techniques, such as characters addressing the audience, narrating themselves in the third person and leaping out of the audience, with a further nod to Brecht in the use of projected titles to introduce scenes.

Despite its often verbose philosophising, this is less a theatre of ideas (rational and logical ones at least) than a theatre of poetry, which is well-served by Helena Kaut-Howson’s sparky and fast-moving production. The cast is excellent. Caroline Kilpatrick has an emotional fragility as the put-upon Rosa, who may or may not have drowned herself, while Ann Mitchell’s portrayal of her monstrous mother, ready at any opportunity to send the world up in a ball of flames, is very funny.

Maggie Steed’s scatty would-be philosopher, forever seeking causal links, also provides light relief in a play where plotlines and themes (mostly about death and suicide) intertwine mercilessly. There’s a strand of absurdity in Rosa’s nerdy husband (Chris Hannon), an undertaker who likes to bring his work home. Meredith MacNeill is superbly cast as the blind, finger-clicking pole-dancer Absolute, in an unsettlingly quirky performance.

There’s something confusing about Kaut-Howson’s programme note which points out Loher’s instruction to cast the two black illegal immigrants with white actors, in order to avoid the “pretence of authenticity”. Admirable though both Okezie Morro and Nathaniel Martello-White are (the latter particularly sympathetic and layered), there is no explanation from the director as to why she’s deliberately undermined the writer’s intention and thus reverted to a more realistic representation.

The fragmented storylines are played out against a background of corrugated grey, with minimal settings (Lara Booth) to indicate the diverse urban locations. David Tushingham’s excellent translation of Loher’s dense and demanding text is worthy of note.

Innocence is a play that tests the audience’s attention, particularly in the 90-minute first half (the second act is much shorter), but the effort needed is well-rewarded.

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