Pains of Youth @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Sian Clifford, Laura Elphinstone, Cara Horgan, Jonah Russell, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Lydia Wilson

directed by
Katie Mitchell
The literal translation of Ferdinand Bruckners rarely performed play is Sickness of Youth which seems more apt, as there is a sense of infection – a creeping, grey malaise – that permeates Katie Mitchells new staging at the National.

The production sees Mitchell collaborating once more with Martin Crimp, the play’s adaptor, with whom shes produced some of her most potent and memorable work, The City at the Royal Court and the divisive Attempts on her Life, also at the National.

Yet while fascinating on an intellectual level, embracing and exploring numerous ideas – most obviously German New Objectivity it is also frustrating in places, increasingly so as the play progresses, the sense of disconnect and fragmentation is just too much.
Bruckners play is set in Vienna, 1923, in a boarding house inhabited by a group of young medical students. It tracks their various sexual and emotional entanglements in a way that is both simultaneously heightened and coolly clinical.

Marie discovers that Petrell, her lover of two years, has fallen for another student, Irene, and in her anguish she turns to the bisexual Desiree for comfort. At the same time, their friend Freder, a malevolent, Svengali-like figure, amuses himself by toying with Lucy, the young house maid, guiding her towards prostitution. Their world is a charged one, decadent and cruel. Death keeps constant watch and its no surprise when one of them reaches for the veronal. Sex and the shadow of Freud are also present, though the production contains little overt eroticism (or at least little that feels overtly erotic; the sex is undercut with cruelty).

Mitchell has moved away from her recent experiments with video and sound effects to something that is both more conventional and at the same time recognisably hers. The characters movements are precise and measured, they dance (at times literally, to Javanese music on the gramophone), they circle one another, they even occasionally lunge at each other in rage: a dam bursting. Vicki Mortimers sepia set is lamp-lit and parquet-floored, a space that is somehow simultaneously cold yet warm with it. The scene changes are particularly striking; the action freezes and the cast, having donned black suits, dispose of unwanted items in plastic bags, as if collecting specimens or bagging the evidence after a crime. New props are then put in place – glasses placed on tables, lit cigarettes placed in performers hands – before the scene begins again. This all unfolds to a soundtrack of tense, quivering music, played live by Simon Allen.

Though visually cohesive, there is a hollowness to the production. Youth does not feel like a great adventure, rather a weight, and a heavy dragging weight at that; one grows fed up with the characters constant twisting. Lydia Wilson and Laura Elphinstone both give strong performances as the aristocratic Desiree, a young woman seduced by the idea of suicide as a welcome escape from the restrictions of bourgeoisie society, and the more world-worn Marie, but Geoffrey Streatfeilds Freder never feels sufficiently charismatic. His hold over the women is baffling. It is possible to appreciate what made the play feel so extraordinary, so vital, but the view obscured and filmy, a view through smudged glass or through plastic.

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