Vengeance, Bloodlust & Afternoon Tea: Armageddon, Cupcakes & the Poisonous Love of Heiner Muller's "Medeamaterial", "Heartpiece" & "Quartet

Thursday, 24 March, 2005

Small, low-budget productions are often intriguing, frequently surprising, and sometimes thought-provoking. The lack of lavish funding often showered on large West End productions, means small companies have to fall back on what they do best – using the skills of the actors to captivate and entertain the audience.

This production at Theatro Technis by iMind is no exception to that general principle. It’s actually a trilogy of plays all by the East German dramatist and writer Heiner Muller.

The first play, ‘Madeamaterial’, is performed by Cradeaux Alexander (who also designed and directed the production). It’s a re-take on Euripdes’ story of Medea (of Jason and the Argonauts fame). The second play, ‘Heartpiece’, is so brief that to even attempt a description would be to spoil the impact and effect. And the final play in the trilogy is ‘Quartet’, a piece with 4 actors (who sometimes swap characters) based on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The play is concerned with the scheming of the Marquis de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont to bring about the moral downfall of a virtuous couple.

In a sense, the second play, ‘Heartpiece’ provides a kind of ironic bridge between the longer pieces – the first portraying love betrayed through ambition and corrupted power, and the final piece describing sexual corruption and decadence.

Muller’s plays are rarely performed in the UK, and are therefore neither well known or generally appreciated. So, it’s to Imind’s credit that they’ve taken on the considerable challenge of Muller’s rich, vibrant and complex language, as well as the general lack of stage directions in his work, which leaves control and inspiration very firmly in the hands of the director.

As one would expect of a low-budget production, the set is basic and dominated by two large red sashes. These are used ingeniously as a kind of veil to make the actor in ‘Medeamaterial’ (who appears naked) seem more androgynous than masculine.

IMind previously produced two of the plays in New York three years ago, but have reworked the material with a new cast and added ‘Heartpiece’. The acting and direction in this new version are generally fresh, interesting and stimulating. However, the lines are delivered at rather a rapid pace which gives little time for the audience to absorb or digest what’s been said, so it’s as much of a challenge for the audience as it is for the actors. But what does come over pretty strongly is the actors’ commitment and enthusiasm for the plays, which produced playing of quite a high standard throughout.

The production relies rather heavily on the use of a number of microphones, which I found both distracting and a little irritating because one heard ‘popping’ when the actors were too near to the fixed mike stands. I’m not convinced that microphones were needed at all given the proximity of the actors and audience in such an intimate venue.

Coming away from this production, my colleague and I discussed the evening’s performance in more detail and at greater length than any other play we’ve seen recently. That’s the real test of success for any theatrical work – does it make the audience respond? This production certainly does that. I’m not saying I understand the works any better than I did before, but I felt like I’d had a needle jabbed in my brain – I’d been forced to think. And that’s what fringe and small- scale theatre is all about and really does best. Worth supporting if you want a more intimate and challenging theatrical experience.

(Peter Brown)

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