The Good German playing at the Seymour downstairs may at first blush appear to be an analysis of the ‘Final Solution’ as put in place by the Nazis during WW II. Certainly that is where it is set but like the play ‘Antigone, The Burial at Thebes’ currently playing at the Belvoir it is very much closer to home. David Wiltse wrote it, as Heaney did ‘Antigone’, in response to the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
While the characters who people it are indeed Germans and argue their respective cases in the confines of a middle class Berlin residence during the war they are arguing on a far broader canvas.
Like Mamet’s ‘The Boston Marriage’ it is set as a period piece of the genre of the drawing room comedy. As is customary both are allegories. Mamet’s was rather localised and masqueraded in complex symbolism. Wiltse, on the other hand, uses the well documented events of the German’s ‘final solution’ as the dark nub for another story which, by virtue of its proximity in time and our involvement in it, is quite apparent.
Wiltse’s argument is not so much about war but what happens when a community decides to risk engaging in war. It’s much the same question Tolstoy poses in War and Peace. He has devised three combatants and set them two opposing scenarios, the first security, love and selflessness, the other vulnerability, fear and egocentricity. He puts the argument at various times in the mouths of each of his combatants as they disclose one or other attribute to a greater or lesser degree. It’s rather like Chekov except that the setting is likely to prejudice audiences against the characters of Siemi and Vogel. This may have prompted director Sheryl Sciro to orchestrate the combatants into varying degrees of mobility within the set. Here Vogel is played by Ivar Kants and Siemi by Frank van Putten. He alone has full range of the stage and he commands it with grace and presence with deftly executed mannerisms giving a performance of outstanding virtuosity. He succeeded in investing the character at least with empathy if not accord.
Karl Vogel is an academic well aware of what might be going on outside his rarefied world but chooses to ignore it trusting in the security of his own position. Kants plays a rather stereotypical German which at times is at odds with a language that seemed to express a more elegant patronising demeanour. In his case the vagaries of war very early shatter his security and drive him more completely into his shell.
Mark Lee plays the pariah, Wilhelm Braun, a Jew by race but not by creed always a survivor he is now disenfranchised and bereft of family. He has stumbled upon a harbour in a turbulent sea and hopes to weather the storm. Lee’s character, whether as a result of the text or its interpretation, seemed at odds with the general movement of the play and at times the responses seemed gratuitous.
Vogel’s wife, Gretel, played creditably by Linden Wilkinson, obviously represents the first scenario epitomising selfless love, her death is the cause for Vogel’s shift in perception. Nevertheless it is not easy to justify the character within the dramatic structure. Her presence in the play is brief and the information she discloses, while significant in terms of plot could well have found a voice elsewhere. Her death is intended to heighten dramatic tension but the lack of opportunity for the audience to find affinity with her leaves the character disconnected. The disclosures in the opening exchanges between herself and Braun and later her husband illuminate aspects of the other’s character that would have been as well left to evolve in the script. She unwraps the play’s ‘present’ to us before we can lay our hands on it and so dissipates a lot of the expectation.
The definition and familiarity of the setting probably needs no prologue and it may be that the symbolism of Gretel would have been better served dramatically had she been present in a metaphysical sense.
Much of the argument delivered in the play has been aired throughout numerous analyses of what drives people caught up in the lemming like contests of war but certainly bear repeating. Wiltse’s dialogue is sharp and concise, the epigrammatic style well suited to the genre. While it is by no means revolutionary the reduction of the argument to one of emotional response is very interesting. Van Putten’s character explains it in terms of ‘hate’, ‘Why is hate so close to the surface, we revel in it. … Try it, … nationalism! Whatever you want to call it. … I wish I could give way to it, let myself be carried away by it. That’s my dilemma.’ However Wiltse has conscripted its corollary, ‘love’. So hate is reduced to love of self or the Narcissus syndrome. In the case of the individual it is believed to be an underlying cause of abusive relationships. It is in this that we find ‘Adolf’s genius’. Not the genius of the intellectual as seen in Vogel, but that of knowing the buttons of the human psyche which when pressed arouse the fiercest of instincts, that of self preservation.
At the end of the play we are treated to the three combatants each desperately seeking a means to survive. For all of them the danger, the enemy, has become the same, that which is outside, never seen, never actually present and yet pervasive. Those inside are merely pawns. Sacrificing one or the other of their companions becomes acceptable even for only a temporary reprieve. At this point the play echoes Sartre, each character as a centre with his perimeter changing to encompass first one and then the other in a bid for an alliance.
The moral dilemma of sacrificing another in the face of an uncertain danger falls short of the horror that it might have evoked had there been a sustained counterbalance. Vogel’s wife was obviously intended as such with the numerous references to her through the play and the several symbolic set ups to echo her. Her presence however has been too fleeting and van Puten’s final challenge, ‘Will it ever change?’ is left suspended.
The period of the piece is firmly established in the solid set designed by Graham McLean. Into its interior Lee makes frequent escapes to a lost domesticity and from outside van Putten’s frequent forays are an ever more cogent threat. The downstairs Seymour is one of the most versatile spaces available in Sydney and lends itself once again, this time to a claustrophobic set. The music by Dorien Mode very admirably conjured the changing mood of the play and the lighting by Martin Kinnane made very telling use of leaving the players in an after glow to signal time lapse. It had the effect of giving the audience a sensation of image retention which had a type of cinematic effect allowing the next scene to pick up on the last frame of the previous one.
Wiltse under the direction of Sciro delivers a powerful message warning of the dangers, not so much of apathy, but fear. We were prey animals long before we became human and we appear to still carry the encoded herd mentality. It’s very obvious when we witness the response to any imminent threat be it in the face of a market reversal or a fire. If those who conjure up threats in whatever form are able to dupe us through our failure to evaluate the probability or extent of a danger we will be swept away in a maelstrom of panic. We are only human which makes fear almost impossible to resist once it takes hold.
Upstairs at the Seymour there is a very curious association with Wiltse’s play. There are two works of art, the first sits quite literally at the top of the stairs, ‘The Big Man’ by Tim Kyle. On the farthest wall there is a mixed media by Peter Powditch, ‘Enjoy Civilization’. It can be observed that the threat being considered in Powditch’s work is nature herself, cheekily disguised as ‘Jiminy Cricket’. When we let her have her head as we surely do when we stir up those primal instincts all the weight and determination expressed in Kyle’s figure will never withstand her winnowing.
Black Pearl Theatre Company presents
THE GOOD GERMAN
by David Wiltse
Venue: Seymour Centre Downstairs Theatre
Dates: 29 April to 24 May
Times: Tues –Sat 8pm Wed matinee 11am Sat matinee 2pm
Tickets: adult $39, $32 concession, Seymour subscribers $35, $28 conc
Bookings: 9351 7940