Review: Pains of Youth, National Theatre

“People should just shoot themselves at 17. Everything after is a disappointment.”

Written by Ferdinand Bruckner, the alias of the German Theodor Tagger, in 1929, Pains of Youth enters the rep at the Cottesloe Theatre and is the latest play to be directed at the NT by Katie Mitchell, known for her interpretative style and creative use of multimedia techniques, but only the former is in evidence here. It is presented in a new version by Martin Crimp, thereby renewing the creative partnership with Mitchell which has seen recent productions of works like The Seagull and Attempts on her Life, both also at the NT.

It is described as shocking and erotically-charged, which instantly means that it is neither of these things. Set in a Viennese boarding-house in 1923, a group of medical students negotiate the trials and tribulations of their sexually entangled lives, against the backdrop of the recently ended First World War. With an ever-revolving carousel of relationships and interactions, all are struggling to escape the disillusionment of their existence, but choose wildly different paths in order to achieve this.

The six students and one maid make up quite a dislikeable bunch of protagonists, there’s a lot of self-indulgent flailing around and ridiculous posturing: “you only make love to your pain” being a personal favourite. This is not a problem in itself, but for the fact that their alleged decadence in their post-war malaise is really quite dull and I did not find it at all engaging, so I couldn’t have cared less about any of them. For all the promise of erotic charge, there was very little sexual chemistry on stage between any of the characters, only Geoffrey Streatfeild coming close to exuding the necessary magnetism for his cruelly manipulative Freder.

The staging of the Viennese drawing room is quite traditional, given Mitchell’s pedigree, but where her influence is apparent is in the manner of the scene changes. The action periodically freezes onstage and besuited, futuristic Men-In-Black types appear to rearrange the sets, producing new props in little plastic bags and popping the props from the just-ended scene in bags as well before departing the stage and allowing the action to proceed. It is extremely random, but I thought it added a kooky sense of puppetry to the production, these actors on stage are just being manipulated by an unknown body, towards their ultimate destinies.

However, there is an awful lot of this messing around with the plastic bags, and whilst the artier side of me could kind of see where they were going with this, the length it took to bag up every flower and teacup in the big scene change in Act 1 nearly drove me to just leaning over, grabbing one of the plastic bags and smothering myself so that I didn’t have to sit

If the idea of people from the future putting on a fatally dull puppet show in which little of any interest happens, then this is the show for you. I couldn’t really tell what Bruckner (or Crimp’s) intent was in terms of story-telling: assuming this was the generation that was instrumental in allowing the rise of Nazism ten years later, the potential for an interesting look at the genesis of their complicity is surely there, but just not in a trite look at their bedhopping. Personally, I would save your money and look at your own plastic bags.

Photo: Mike Hoban

3 thoughts on “Review: Pains of Youth, National Theatre

  1. I don't know if that would have saved it, or just served as another distraction from what was a fundamentally quite an undramatic piece.

    I wasn't keen on the constant 'turning their backs' to the audience that kept recurring. I wouldn't have wanted to be any further back than we were on the fourth row

  2. This is interesting opinion. This play has its premiere at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in September. Love the play and am looking forward to seeing this production.

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