“It’s not easy these days, lighting a cigarette ... everyone thinks the whole world’s about to go up in flames.”
The first line of Alistair Beaton’s brilliant new translation of The Arsonists by Max Frisch – better known in English as The Fire-Raisers – puts the play in a nutshell. It’s delivered by Will Keen as Gottlieb Biedermann, a highly strung businessman who deals in hair restorers while harbouring the agents of his own destruction.
The arsonists who arrive in his sleek modern house – designed by Anthony Ward as a suburban show-room of glass, white walls, curvilinear furniture and chrome and silver trappings – are as mysterious as Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party.
The first, Schmitz (Paul Chahidi), is an ex-wrestler from a deprived background. The second, Eisenring (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a former head waiter with a taste for the high life. They are connecting up oil drums – these float in to fill the upper level of the set – and are disowned by the third conspirator (Munir Khairdin), a philosopher who may be a Muslim fundamentalist, as irresponsible: “They do it because they like doing it.”
The enemy within, the tiger at the gates; Frisch’s 1958 play has a resonant metaphorical richness that was first taken to reflect the dangers of political infiltration by Communists in Czechoslovakia, or Hitler’s inflammatory bluffing in Germany, as well as the nuclear threat in our midst. Lindsay Anderson’s Royal Court premiere in 1961 (the play was seen on a double bill with a Victorian farce, and featured Colin Blakely, Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast) ended with a film of an atomic bomb explosion.
The social comedy of Biedermann and his bird-brained materialist wife (Jacqueline Defferary) coping with the intrusion and then embracing their guests (and their fate) is sombrely offset against the silent, brooding figure of the widow of an employee Biedermann has callously dismissed; this skilled colleague, an inventor, has killed himself.
Most strikingly, a chorus of fire-fighters is on permanent alert for a threat they know they can never fully combat. The recent tragedy in a Warwickshire warehouse gives their presence a grim immediacy. As somebody says, “These days, most people don’t believe in God but they believe in the fire brigade.”
Ramin Gray’s production – a companion to Dominic Cooke’s of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and performed by the same company in repertoire – is a stunning renewal of possibilities in the home of new theatre writing, providing a welcome jolt to the predominant school of dreary sitcom naturalism. It is beautifully performed and inexhaustibly provocative in the best possible way. A famous classic has been restored as though it was a brand new piece of writing. Which, really, in Beaton’s text, it is anyway.
- Michael Coveney