Thursday, 21 December 2017

A tin drum signifying nothing very much

Günter Grass’s Nobel-cited 1959 debut novel, The Tin Drum, is a sprawling monster of a book – published as three books in one and in reality, pretty much two books. By turns epic, tragic and comic, disturbing and fantastical, anyone hoping to stage something under its name will have their work cut out.

Carl Grose decided to attempt precisely that for Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh. Staged in conjunction with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Liverpool’s Everyman, it has been touring since October and, on the final leg of that tour, is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall in Hackney until this Saturday.

It would be as absurd to imagine that anyone could cram the entire book into a show of under three hours as to expect to see a literalist interpretation. It’s easy to realise that a range of performance styles – puppetry, song, dance, burlesqueue, cabaret etc – could be employed in such an Herculean task.

Perhaps precisely because one can see the potential, it’s particularly disappointing that this misses the mark by some considerable way.

The obvious problems are clear – and have been evident (and noted) since it opened in a different venue, but have not apparently taken on board. Many of the lyrics cannot be heard because the music is far too loud – it’s amped up to a ridiculous level. And since there so much ‘music,’ it would have been nice if Charles Hazlewood’s score had at least some variety or discernible quality. As things stand, it is largely an exercise in homogenised noise with a thumping bass.

The puppet Oskar has much going for it – an eerie quality, certainly – but the use of different actors to voice the boy who won’t grow up, miked and often from quite a physical distance, doesn’t help. This also ensures that he comes across as a sort of demon child who is utterly unsympathetic. But being able to have sympathy with Oskar is important, because it draws us in. It is part of showing us how easy it is to fall for the extremism – how easy it is to become complicit – and how we must take responsibility.

Without that, Grass’s lesson is nowhere near as powerful.

Grose decided to strip the story away from its time and place, telling us at the start that this could be about “any war”. So what is acted out before us could be the Balkans, it could be Syria, it could be Yemen. His text emphasises the idea of tribalism creating conflict and that we’re really all both different and the same – ‘viva complexity’. That’s all well and good, yet in having Sigismund Markus, the kindly Jewish toymaker, be targeted for being a Pole rather than a Jew, he rids what is served up of any specific comment on anti-semitism.

In a world where a far-right poster boy like Nigel Farage can feel confident enough to use his LBC radio show to talk of a “Jewish lobby” in the US, this is not a matter of polite semantics.

When Alfred Matzerath dies, it is no longer by swallowing his Nazi badge in an effort to avoid detection by Soviet troops – as clear a metaphor for falling for extremist rhetoric as anyone could come up with – but in gunfire. 

The Nazis have here become the ‘Order’ and could have dropped straight out of something by Mel Brooks – ‘Hitler’ is a Lady Gagaesque figure whose salute becomes a sort of voguing as she belts out something or other to more of Hazelwood’s monotone faux rock.

Grose was always going to have to substantially trim his source material, but in the context of the apparent aim of highlighting current global tensions and making a general anti-racist statement, his concentration of such a vast amount of stage time on the love triangle that is Oskar’s family background seems oddly unbalanced – not least as decisions noted above mean that the Nazi threat is frankly reduced.

If the music is rather one note, then the pace of the performance feels the same. There are good ideas on display (the chase Oskar’s grandfather leads the police is very clever) and some good performances from the ensemble cast, but greater variety of pace might also help move this from being a whirling – wearying – experience to one that actually engages the emotions.

At the present, it singularly fails to do that. This is a tin drum beating nothing more than sound and fury, signifying nothing very much at all.

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