When does a newly translated revival become a different play altogether? Does it matter if what we’re seeing as the work of Gerhart Hauptmann - in this case a play written in 1903 about a claustrophobic rustic community - bears little resemblance to the original?
Perhaps these questions become less urgent if the original is virtually forgotten, or perhaps capturing its essence is even more vital. Few in the Arcola’s audience (including me) will have much to compare with Gari Jones’ production of the second in the Last Waltz Season of turn-of-the-20th century German classics, so it may be that some of us are undeservedly consigning Rose Bernd to the second division. Dennis Kelly, who has written this new version, admits to “manipulating the text to suit my own purposes instead of Hauptmann’s” and directs anyone disappointed to seek out the original.
Kelly - a young writer who has already had some success with his play Debris and is Paines Plough’s associate playwright - has certainly blown away the century-old dust. The problem is that the play now seems to be in limbo.
In an introduction to this new edition, Mark Rosenblatt, artistic director of Dumbfounded Theatre, which has mounted the season with the Oxford Stage Company, writes that he sees no point in transferring rural Silesia to “ooh-aar Somerset” as one early translator did. Quite so. No one would advocate introducing ersatz olde worlde charm or Archers-style comedy into this brutal tale, but there’s now scant sense of a closed peasant community. Villagers speak with the accents of many different regions, all-important class differences are blurred and the repressive power of religion is dissipated as characters drop “Jesus Christ” into their conversation passim.
Poor Rose looks doomed from the first moment when she emerges giggling from the long grass under a cherry tree having enjoyed a sexual encounter with her older, married lover, the local landowner and magistrate, Christoph Flamm. Pleasure of this kind has to be paid for, but first, pregnant, she promises to marry boring but well-off and God-fearing August Keil. Streckmann, the jealous, blackmailing engineer is keen to stir up trouble, however. There’s a fight (cue sprays of water hitting the second row as Keil loses an eye) which leads to a court case during which Rose, questioned about her character, commits perjury and later aborts her child.
Set loose in a world where attitudes are not clearly differentiated from ours, the characters are difficult to pin down. Rose (Caroline Hayes radiating passion and determination) is certainly tragic, but, in these circumstances, her lying in court seems the result of stupidity rather than social pressure. August Keil (sincerely played by Roger Evans) comes over as merely a figure of fun, but one suspects there may be more to him than that.
The set (designed by Jon Bausor), although attractive and well-suited to the space, opens up the action so that Flamm’s drawng room abuts the workers’ fields and dilution of the claustrophobic social norms is complete.
- Heather Neill