Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play was written partly out of his unease at his country’s response to World War 2 and its aftermath, a time when poverty was endemic in much of Europe.
The entire community in the fictional town of Guellen (which apparently means ‘excrement’ in Swiss) is in a state of complete despair, so when a former resident, Claire Zachanassian, now very rich, returns with the offer of a great deal of money in return for justice being done with regard to an incident from many years previously, the people face a moral dilemma that will change their lives forever. Can they really hold onto their ideals in the face of grinding poverty?
Imagination knows no bounds in these collaborative AUB productions, and the words ‘cardboard city’ take on a whole new meaning with a simply brilliant backdrop seemingly made entirely out of cardboard, and with different windows lighting up to depict the setting – police station, inn, hotel room etc. There is also a large moving platform, but essentially the actual set is made up of reinforced cardboard boxes. There are few props as such, with mimed actions and wonderful sound effects telling us all we need to know when, say, characters are raising their glasses in a toast. Talking of those sound effects, I also loved the scene where the choir’s singing is drowned out by an approaching train, with the same fate also befalling the Mayor’s speech.
Costumes and make-up are also incredibly impressive, adding so much to the overall effect.
A seventeen-strong cast totally convince and work well as an ensemble, aided by some fine choreography, and there are many superb characterisations too. Isobel Thomas Steer, playing Claire, could well find herself in demand whenever an imperious elderly lady is needed, so well does she inhabit the character and bring out her inherent nastiness. Matthew Sledge also gets right under the skin of Alfred Ill, Claire’s former lover, the only one of the community who seems to come to terms with what fate has in store.
Lily-Marion Scanlon, as the local schoolmistress, makes her presence felt from her first entrance and her very natural performance commands attention at all times, not least when she has had a few too many glasses of a local brew. There is a real skill in acting drunk, and she most certainly has it. There is a fine performance, too, from Jes Gislason as the town’s Mayor, while also very watchable and amusing – yes, this is a tragi-comedy, so not always as serious as it sounds – are Elizabeth Stefanec and Niamh Hayter as two blind eunuchs.
Although this play is set in the 1950s, it seems very clear that the question posed resonates as much today as it did then, possibly even more so in our ‘I want it all now’ society, and that is a very sobering thought.
There are further performances on 20 and 21 October at 3.00 and 7.30 on both days.