Ever since Dominic Dromgoole took command of the Oxford Stage Company, its reach has extended far beyond its Oxford boundaries – and I don't just mean geographically. Dromgoole has taken it into a different dimension, a powerhouse of rejuvenation, dusting off old classics with a freshness and vigour you just wish could be emulated elsewhere.
This new residency at the Arcola, in conjunction with Dumbfounded Theatre company, is typically ambitious.
Kicking off a seven-week German season of three neglected pre-First World War plays under the umbrella title of “The Last Waltz”, Wedekind's Musik, written in 1906, translated and considerably overhauled by Neil Fleming (a version first premiered, in fact, at Plymouth's Theatre Royal five years ago) emerges in Deborah Bruce's sensitive, expressionistic, terrifically acted production as a bracingly modern study of hypocrisy, the bourgeoisie, artistic exploitation with a good old swipe at the press along the way.
Add to that a central theme of social stigma and abortion and you can see that in one of those eerie coincidences always popping up in the theatre, Musik has suddenly taken on a topicality never dreamed of when Fleming began his Wedekind emersion or Dromgoole sat down to plan the Arcola programme.
Originally written in response to a southern German law that criminalised women who had abortions, Wedekind's stylistically jagged but riveting drama is built around Klara (luminous, name-to-watch Mariah Gale), a young Swiss singer whose emotional entanglement with Munich music teacher, Josef Reissner, results in the termination of her pregnancy.
Wedekind/Fleming, however, use Klara as a kind of lightning conductor through which to illuminate the manipulative depths of Josef (dashingly played by Deka Walmsley) and his moral turpitude.
In strange echoes of Wedekind's Lulu, see how this time it’s the `circus-master' Josef running rings around other people: Klara (an infatuation that leads to prison, a double pregnancy and the edge of madness); his exasperated wife, Else (a reluctant and mystifying colluder); and Franz Lindekuh (superb John Lloyd Fillingham with a touch of the Mark Rylance about him), a supposedly free-thinking `radical' journalist whose campaigning leads him first to inveigh against the act, then against what he conceives – quite rightly but persuaded by Josef it is not so – as an outrageous ménage à trois.
Fascinating stuff. If Musik is anything to go by, we're in for a treat with the rest of “The Last Waltz” repertory season, which continues Hauptmann's Rose Bernd and Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi until 7 May 2005. Don't miss.
- Carole Woddis