The final play in this year’s Travelex £10 Season at the National, Odon von Horvath’s “Tales from The Vienna Woods”, was last performed at the National Theatre in 1977. It has now been revived 25 years later in a new version by David Harrower.
Set in 1931, the play tells of the decadence of the Austrian lower middle classes who so willingly rallied around the fascist flag.
An ideology of bigotry, faith and ‘family values’ at a time of economic depression and loss of national pride caused a whole community to lose hope and submit to the cruel hand of fate.
The story centres on Marianne, the young daughter of the widowed toy-maker Herr Spellbinder. Marianne’s father has arranged to marry his daughter to the elderly butcher Oskar. Every one accepts this situation until Alfred, the former lover of the local tobacconist Valerie, comes to town. Marianne instantly falls in love with the gamblerholic Alfred, and cancels her engagement with Oskar against the wishes of her father. A year later the unmarried Marianne is now the mother of a child Leopold, her worthless lover Alfred is unable to support her and persuades her to leave the child with his mother and malicious grandmother. Eventually deserted by Albert, Marianne is reduced to appearing naked in cabaret acts, as the only means of supporting herself.
Nicki Gillibrand’s stage design is the production’s biggest problem. Giant postcards are used as backdrops, leaving the remainder of the huge austere stage looking like a giant empty canvas. And though the cast is constantly singing of the beautiful Blue Danube; there is nothing on stage that captures this kitschy mood, apart from the lederhosen-clad musicians playing Johann Strauss waltzes, and even their aimless wanderings merely extenuates the empty space. The play only comes into focus in the middle of the second act when the heightened emotions forces attention upon the characters and away from the encumbering staging.
Nicola Walker produces an arresting performance as Marianne, the headstrong young girl whose will is broken by grief until finally she becomes a lifeless rag doll unable to resist others bidding. Francis Barber enthrals as Valerie, the self-assured man-hungry woman who delights in her financial independence and the control this gives her over younger men, but she also captures the wrenching pain and anguish that lies beneath the surface of her character. Joe Duttine as Alfred is disappointing. He is neither charming nor seductive, and his persona of insensitivity never fluctuates throughout the play. Karl Johnson gives a lively performance as Herr Spellbinder, a randy and self-obsessed elderly man, and Doreen Mantle oozes bane as the fowl mouthed murdering grandmother.
Director Richard Jones has chosen to concentrate on the stage setting, with cyclists and other extras distracting from the characters and the harsh cyclic pattern of their lives. When Jones finally concentrates on the inhabitants of this play it quickly becomes spellbinding, alas this happens too late in the production to prevent it from becoming laborious.
Notices from the popular press....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The production is a riveting portrait of a society waltzing towards the abyss." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Viennese whirl fails to take off." CHARLOTTE CRIPPS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "New translation...is a welcome bolt from the blue." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Tales without a sting."
External links to full reviews from newspapers