Beware of Pity

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Complicite return with a painful, gripping adaptation of Stefan Zwelig's epic novel

This hook up between British experimental theatre titans Complicite and Berlin’s revered Schaubühne theatre works on two main levels. 

First of all, as dazzling piece of storytelling theatre, that brings Austrian writer Stefan Zelwig’s 1939 novel to the stage.The tale is breathlessly told by the seven-strong ensemble, who spend much of adaptor-director Simon McBurney’s production set up in fixed spots across the stage, like a human orchestra, hurriedly pinging lines back and forth. Even when speaking, the actors spend much of the show shrouded in darkness, with each scene given a single, striking, simple image to focus on – be that a cast member, projections, or some other striking tableau. Roaring out in energetic (surtitled) German, it has the kinetic pace of a thriller, and certainly completely belies it interval free two hour running time as we follow the misadventures of young Austrian army lieutenant Hofmiller.

The second way that ‘Beware of Pity’ works – and surely what drew McBurney to it – is as an exploration of some truly deplorable areas of the human psyche, the sort of instantly recognisable but rarely talked about stuff that makes you vaguely hate yourself just watching it. (Or possibly that’s just me, but whatever). Billeted to a one-horse Austrian town, the young, unimaginative Hofmiller is invited to a soiree at the local nobleman’s house, where he commits the faux pas of asking the host’s disabled daughter Edith to dance. Mortified – and perhaps overestimating his host’s station – he spends his month’s wages on flowers. He ends up intimately entwined in the capricious Edith’s life, with his inability to extricate himself having ultimately cataclysmic consequences for everyone. Much as he wants to leave, he keeps getting pulled back in, not just by pity, but also the intoxication of the adulation he receives when he tells her what she wants to hear, even as this grows dangerously adrift from the truth. 

There is certainly something in here that speaks to the rise of populism in the twenty-first century, of Trump and his rallies. But I think more obvious and more potent is its excruciatingly clear articulation of the dynamics of a certain sort of damaging relationship, of saying ‘the right thing’ for the wrong reasons. I have done this, many, many times, and seeing it so forensically dissected on stage would be unbearable if the means of delivery weren’t so thrilling.

‘Beware of Pity’ is completely sold out for its short run, but if you’re a bit iffy about the returns queue, fear not – Sunday’s 3pm matinee will be live streaming for free right here, and will be available to watch for a fortnight afterwards.


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