Pains of Youth (That Production Company)
November 5 – 15
Studio 188 at Ipswich’s old Baptist Church is an intimate venue whose charm reminds me of Greenside’s Royal Terrace setting alongside Greenside Parish church in Edinburgh. Seeing “Death of a Salesman” at the Ed Fringe there was a memorable occasion, firstly because any decent production of the greatest play of the 20th century is noteworthy, but also because, due to an audience member taking ill, the production had to be stopped to allow their exit passage across the stage. Like ‘Salesman’, the experience of “Pains of Youth” in the Studio 188 venue is certainly impressive, however, it is due to everything other than the text itself.
Expressionist German playwright Gerindand Bruckner’s story takes place in 1920s Vienna, a time when Austria was caught up in a swell of modernism following World War One. On the eve of their graduation, a depressive, depressing group of bisexual upper-middle-class medical students who share a boarding house all struggle with the need to transition into adulthood. “Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices,” they lament melodramatically.
“Pains of Youth” is an ambitious work and That Production Company is unflinching in its depiction of the dark subject material in this version by Martin Crimp. Every relationship is toxic, however, the action is dominated by the sinister, Nietzschean Freder who delights in orchestrating the destruction of those around him. He corrupts the innocent maid Lucy (Ellen Marshall) from her ‘sleepwalk through life’ to prostitute herself and feeds the suicidal tendencies of the aristocratic Desiree (Jane Flanagan). Initially flirtatious and flamboyant in his embodiment of the romance of eternal student existence, Patrick Dwyer is ultimately beguiling in his cruel manipulation, delivering a standout performance.
Hysterically volatile like Tennessee Williams’ Maggie the Cat, Lauren Roche anchors the cast as Marie, the gorgeous, multifaceted protagonist, whose descent in madness intensifies as her every layer is shed. Her performance energy is engaging in its liveliness as her mad desperation increases. Indeed they are all quite mad but, as Desiree wonders, ‘what’s the point in being sane’? And what would youth know?
Sane or insane, there is little to care about in this group and without this, no amount of thematic universality can make give the text substance. The dialogue is dense with sometimes quite poetic inner thought declarations regarding love, life and learning, however, their poignancy is sometimes lost in the frenetic gabble of its adolescent tedium and naivety of statements like “being young is the one great adventure of our lives”.
Staging is deceptively simple and fluently functional, however, as the madcap desperation escalates to increased door slamming, it is clear that perhaps a sturdier set is needed. Costumes, however, are superb, achieving a strong visual appeal, which is no mean feat in a play of such moral repugnance.
On its release in 1926 Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (Sickness of Youth) must have seemed daring and controversial in its depravity in its thematic touches on (but no real exploration of) drug use, lesbianism, and euthanasia. Even today, it is not a work for the faint of heart and That Production Company should be commended for not shying away from its discomfort.