Sweet Nothings @ Young Vic, London

directed by
Luc Bondy
Arthur Schnitzler is sometimes seen as a theatrical equivalent of Freud, in his pathological probings of the dark side of sexuality in fin de sicle Vienna.

A classic example is his 1895 play Liebelei, previously filmed by Max Ophuls and adapted by Tom Stoppard as Dalliance, now staged in David Harrowers version as Sweet Nothings by the celebrated Swiss director Luc Bondy.

The play shows how the younger generations reckless pursuit of sensual enjoyment leads to tragic consequences.
In an effort to distract his aristocratic friend Fritz from his potentially dangerous affair with a married woman, the playboy Theodore brings along the innocently besotted Christine, as well as his own more worldly girlfriend Mizi, for a night of revelry. But the party is rudely interrupted by the betrayed husband, who challenges Fritz to a duel.

A practising doctor, Schnitzler explores with clinical precision the tangled relationships between the characters, showing how close pleasure can be to pain, and desire to death. While it is difficult to sympathize too much with the self-centred protagonists except for Christine who is caught up in their decadent games the play is refreshingly clear of simplistic moral judgements. Harrowers colloquial language makes the emotional dynamics of the drama seem very modern.

In Bondys extraordinarily fluid production the constant movement of the cast in Act One as they climb onto the piano, dance, flirt and roll into bed with each other suggests a restless abandon as champagne spills and glasses break in the accumulating mess. There is also a strong sense of dangerous physicality right from the start, when we see Theodore fall of the edge of the circular stage, which at times slowly revolves, adding to the insecurity.

The hedonistic decadence of the party in Fritzs apartment is evoked in Karl-Ernst Hermanns sensually pink design and subdued lighting, which later gives way to the clear orderliness and pure white light of Christines house. Gareth Frys sound, including echoing gun-shots and a distorted mixture of waltz and marching music, adds to the edginess.

The largely inexperienced youthful cast do well. As Fritz, Tom Hughes in his professional stage debut suggests both a dreamy romanticism and a shallow selfishness in his determination to live for the moment, while Jack Laskey gives Theodore a more nastily misogynistic quality, though he really does seem to care for his friend. Kate Burdettes Christine shifts from tender feelings of first love to bitterness at being exploited, whereas Natalie Dormers sexy, fun-loving Mizi is never under any illusions that mens love will last.

Andrew Wincott makes a menacingly sober intrusion as the husband demanding satisfaction for his tarnished honour, David Sibley is Christines widowed musician father torn between paternal possessiveness and wanting her to have her freedom, and the scene-stealing Hayley Carmichael is very funny as his interfering neighbour scandalized by the hedonism of youth but Schnitzler shows her puritanical desire to control to be just as suspect as their licentiousness.

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