Posts Tagged ‘Biedermann and the Arsonists’

2015 foursomes

December 30, 2015

Following the example of previous years, a trawl through what I’ve been up to. It’s felt rather a mean year, but looking back there have been a handful of very high points.

Top 4 live music
The best classical concert I went to was a piano recital by Richard Goode at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall. His Brahms op. 76 Klavierstücke were a thing of wonder. Later in the year, Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr playing the Bach viola da gamba sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, fabulous. Though it’s been a Sondheim-light year I saw a couple of productions of Sweeney Todd. The all-star ENO version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel was all well and good, but better was the CUMTS one at Cambridge’s ADC Theatre. Among some spectacular performances, Aoife Kennan’s Mrs Lovett stood out. A star of the future. And, as chronicled elsewhere on this blog, Šimon Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists at Sadler’s Wells, an excellent production of a very fine opera.

Top 4 theatre
The best theatre piece I saw all year, probably the best thing of all, was Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Fringe, which I wrote about in detail here. The performances (I was going to write the performance of Rebecca Root, but in fact all of them) are still vivid in my memory. More recently, I’ve got back into the habit of attending the ADC regularly. I’d forgotten how exhilarating student theatre can be when it’s done well. The pick of the bunch were Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Nina Raine’s Tribes, and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Let’s keep doing this next year.

Top 4 comedy
The best things I saw, I saw at Edinburgh in an intensely concentrated couple of days towards the end of August. Three shows I liked so much I saw them again in London post-Festival, Mae Martin’s entirely lovable Us, Kieran Hodgson’s virtuosic Lance, and Sheeps Skewer the News, messy in Edinburgh, more refined and brilliant in London (David Cameron to Ed Sheeran: ‘Samantha and I love to listen to your music when we’re spooning in our isolation tank’). And fourth, Alex Horne’s madcap Monsieur Butterfly, the hit of 2014’s Fringe, which I caught on its return. I’d go and see it again in a second if it hadn’t finished forever.

Sheeps Festive Bash

Top 4 albums
I haven’t really been listening to albums recently – I’ve been on shuffle all year – but one that has been on repeat is Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s The Rascal and the Sparrow, which mingles transcriptions of Edith Piaf songs with original piano pieces and assorted song transcriptions of Francis Poulenc. It’s an irresistible concoction, beautifully played. Listening last month to John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir’s recording of Beethoven’s Mass in C on a train, I heard it as though through new ears. It’s a piece I’d forgotten I liked, but as I get better acquainted with this performance I know I will grow to love it. A late purchase has been the first volume of Fats Waller’s Complete Recorded Works on CD, which contains a lot of his smashing organ recordings, including many underappreciated gems. You can tell from his playing what a warm person he must have been. Lastly, Peter Pears’ A Treasury of English Song continues to prove itself a treasure trove. Pears, it becomes increasingly apparent to me, is more than a mere appendage to Britten, and a piece like Alan Bush’s cantata Voices of the Prophets is a genuinely exciting discovery.

Top 4 new films
I wish I could recommend something obscure, but the films I loved most at the cinema this year were all critical successes. Firstly, right at the start of January, Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s darkly comic film about a washed-up former action star staging his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway as a last stab at success. Whiplash was a rollercoaster ride, perhaps a bit questionable psychologically but enormously exciting, with a bravura final sequence that stays in the mind for a long time. The film adaptation of London Road, one of my favourite theatrical experiences of recent years, was mightily impressive, and achieved (I thought) a profound sadness that the stage version missed. And just this month, Todd Haynes’ latest, Carol, emotionally involving precisely because of the restraint of its use of emotion – the look, the quiet declaration. I left the cinema thinking the most beautiful three words in the English language are ‘I miss you’.

Top 4 old films
My film watching is down on last year, but I’ve seen some goodies. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, for instance, exciting and weird. Or Héctor Babenco’s hard-hitting Pixote: a lei do mais fraco, a portrait of Brazilian street life that is grimly unsentimental and disarmingly poignant. There were two films that blew me away, though. Firstly, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. I don’t know what Bogdanovich was on in the early ’70s, but this and my beloved Paper Moon are two almost flawless films. A portrait of small-town life full of atmosphere and music on radios, and somehow more black and white than the black and white films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I think it made me cry. Film of the year, though, was Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos, which automatically became one of my favourites. It’s an allegory of Fascist Spain, but I didn’t appreciate that on first viewing, I just saw a portrait of loss in childhood, a meditation on the nature of memory. It’s a film full of beauty, full of tender observations about the connection between memory and music, the lack of sentimentality there is in childhood, children at play, grief and guilt and coping, the blurring of dreams and reality.

Cria Cuervos

Top 4 books
In the most reading-heavy year of my life (more on that anon) a small number of books have stood out. Firstly, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which I loved. I saw so much of myself in her, particularly in our obsessions and compulsions, our childhood diaries, our solipsism. The best non-fiction book I read was Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, angry and incisive and eloquent and eye-opening and (perhaps most crucially) readable. Required reading. I’ve not read as many novels this year as previously, but one that immediately struck me as a masterpiece was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, dense and demanding but undeniably beautiful, and enormously witty (in places raucously so). The handful of Tom Stoppard plays I read late in the year left me reeling at their inventiveness, none more so than Arcadia, a work of almost mathematical perfection. Joy and sadness abound, and though the poignancy of the final scene stays long in the memory, so too do the jokes.

LADY CROOM: What hermits do you have?
NOAKES: I have no hermits, my lady.
LADY CROOM: Not one? I am speechless.
NOAKES: I am sure a hermit can be found. One could advertise.
LADY CROOM: Advertise?
NOAKES: In the newspapers.
LADY CROOM: But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.

See you next year.

Fun Home


Biedermann und die Brandstifter

November 15, 2015


Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s operatic adaptation of the Max Frisch play Biedermann und die Brandstifter, presented in David Pountney’s English translation as Biedermann and the Arsonists and directed by Max Hoehn.

The play’s been a favourite of mine for years. It’s touch and go with things you study at school, isn’t it. How many people have been turned off Shakespeare for life as a result of doing Othello at GCSE? Of course it’s rarely Shakespeare’s fault, more likely to be a combination of the teacher and the child and other variables. But with Biedermann, which I did for A-level German, I was lucky to have an excellent teacher and an excellent class.

Gottlieb Biedermann is an ostensibly respectable businessman selling his own phoney brand of hair tonic (Hormoflor) and living with his wife Babette and their maid Anna. His town is in the grip of a spate of arson attacks. The play opens with Biedermann reading the paper (translations mine):

BIEDERMANN: They should hang them … Another arson attack. And always the same story, believe it or not: a peddler, who makes his nest in the attic, a harmless peddler… They should hang them!
ANNA: Herr Biedermann –
ANNA: He’s still there.
ANNA: The peddler who wants to talk to you.

The peddler is Schmitz, an unemployed wrestler, who insinuates himself into Biedermann’s house and, with the help of his colleague Eisenring, proceeds to burn it down, with Biedermann’s tacit endorsement. It’s not that Biedermann’s an idiot exactly, but he’s hamstrung by his middle-class guilt. One reason why he doesn’t chuck Schmitz and Eisenring out is that he can’t bear to be thought of as prejudiced.

The arsonists are also crafty: they dodge and wheedle, using manipulation and negative psychology. My favourite of Eisenring’s deflections:

EISENRING: Don’t worry about the bathroom, Herr Biedermann. There was no bathroom in prison, you know.
EISENRING: Didn’t Sepp tell you I came from prison?
EISENRING: Not a word?
EISENRING: He only ever talks about himself!

Crucially, they don’t lie: as Eisenring observes to Biedermann, he has found telling the truth to be the most effective strategy (ahead of sentimentality and jokes), since no one believes it. Biedermann goes so far as to help him measure out the fuse for the detonator. The arsonists’ plan almost fails at the end, as they have no matches, but Biedermann comes to the rescue.

BABETTE: What did you give them? I saw it – matches?
BABETTE: Matches?
BIEDERMANN: If they were really arsonists, why would they have no matches?

I love the play’s dark and absurd humour. A secondary plot strand involves the suicide of an employee of Biedermann. Biedermann arranges for a wreath to be sent to the widow, but an administrative mix-up means she is sent the bill and he receives a wreath with a bow attached bearing the legend ‘TO OUR UNFORGETTABLE GOTTLIEB BIEDERMANN’.

The play is a popular choice for study in school because the morality is so ambiguous. To what extent is Biedermann complicit in the arson attacks? The arsonists never pretend to be anything other than what they are, though their brazenness increases as the end approaches. Does Biedermann’s blindness stem from delusion, or embarrassment, or what?

The familiar and unattributable quote about the only thing necessary for evil to triumph being for good men to do nothing inevitably comes to mind. When one views the play in its historical context, it’s most easily read as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, perhaps with special reference to Frisch’s country Switzerland. Michael Billington, in his recently published book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, notes that the Communist coup in postwar Czechoslovakia was the immediate catalyst for the play’s composition. Whatever Frisch may have had in mind, his play speaks to us of ourselves, often uncomfortably so.

As does Voseček’s opera. I’m very poorly versed in opera post-Britten, and perhaps it was a result of my own shortcomings in this respect and of the opera being sung in English that I found myself thinking most regularly of Britten as I attempted to place it musically. Some of the opening scene’s rhythmic urgency put me in mind of the vigour of the arrival of the new crew members in Billy Budd, while Biedermann’s (Mark Le Brocq) stridency occasionally recalled Bob Boles, and the lyricism of Alinka Kozári’s Babette, singing an arietta while she stuffs a goose, made me think of Ellen Orford.

Voseček’s music is lush, with a rich array of tuned percussion, and most memorable in its eerie achievement of approaching siren effects in the final scene. The libretto, wisely, is taken pretty much wholesale from Frisch, with the best jokes preserved. I had hoped for the inclusion of ‘Lili Marlene’, which Frisch has Schmitz whistle during one scene, but it was omitted; in its place, ingeniously, a twisted quotation from Don Giovanni, as Schmitz briefly becomes the Commendatore. The lengthy afterpiece, set in hell, is sensibly left out: Voseček’s ending, with the fuse approaching the detonator, is most satisfying.

David Pountney’s translation is a success. The final scene involves Schmitz repeatedly making a crude pun on the German word for gun (Schießgewehr becoming Scheißgewehr), which rarely translates well into English. Pountney’s solution seems the most satisfactory, an emphasis on the first syllable of the word ‘arsonist’. (I’m afraid I can’t remember what Alistair Beaton does in his translation of the play, which I saw at the Royal Court in 2007.)

It’s a shame there are only three performances of this opera scheduled, and tickets for the remaining ones so thin on the ground, particularly given how well sung and performed it is throughout. The opera deserves to be seen and heard widely. I hope at any rate that people will be inspired to seek out Frisch’s play, as provocative now as when it was first staged in 1958.