The Arsonists @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Zawe Ashton
Michael Begley
Paul Chahidi
Benedict Cumberbatch
Jacqueline Defferary
David Hinton
Will Keen
Munir Khairdin
Claire Prempeh
Alwynne Taylor
Graham Turner

directed by
Ramin Gray
The Royal Court’s production of Max Frisch’s 1958 play The Arsonists (better known in this country as The Fire Raisers) dangles before us the opportunity to assess our society’s capacity for accommodating the means of its own destruction. It hints that liberalism is a step away from appeasement and collaboration in evil, an intriguing proposition that has the potential for provoking some highly inflammatory argument in these politically sensitive times. Sadly neither the production nor the play delivers on the promise.

It opens on a nicely playful note, with Will Keen about to light a cigarette, something we all know is now a banned activity in the theatre as well as in other public places (clearly, the production has an exemption from the rule, as cigars are lit freely throughout the evening). This is a darkly comic work and Ramin Gray’s direction, while fudging the key issues, does extract a fair few laughs from the increasingly surreal situation.

Gottlieb Biedermann is a businessman who prides himself that he is immune to the threat posed by arsonists who wheedle their way into people’s houses to do their deadly work. In the central role, Keen is a dead ringer in his dodgy wig for David Miliband. He blusters well, with a fine sense of comedy timing, but this is a confused and confusing character who claims to see the good in people while calling for criminals to be hung and treating his sacked employee’s suicide with contempt. His subsequent acquiescence to and participation in the arsonists’ activities, rather than showing a decent man lose his moral integrity, merely make him look imbecilic.

The crude symbolism and dated stylisation a Greek chorus of firemen, direct addresses to the audience, houselights raised at key points, a lack of linear logic soon become tedious. The limitations of a repertory system (the same actors, barring Keen, appear in Rhinoceros which is running concurrently) are evident in some bad miscasting. A fey Paul Chahidi, excellent in the Ionesco play, is never believable as an ex-wrestler or someone from the wrong side of the tracks. Benedict Cumberbatch as his pyromaniac cohort is far too dapper and similarly lacking in menace.

Class is an important factor in this play and here the production gets the balance all wrong. There’s no differentiation between ostensibly upright citizens, homeless terrorists and Doctors of Philosophy. The decision to play the latter mysterious character as a Muslim (Munir Khairdin) invites us once more to try and shoehorn contemporary relevance into all this surrealism but again we’re only given hints and it fails to follow through.

Alistair Beaton’s new version does for the dialogue all that we’ve come to expect of a modern translation. Subtitling it “a moral play with no moral”, maybe Frisch was indicating that this is nothing more than an evening’s entertainment but it brings us so tantalisingly close to meaning something that its failure to do so merely frustrates. Running at 90 minutes without interval, this is a short but ultimately a big bore of an evening.

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