As my first taste of German playwright Dea Loher’s work, I was hoping the Arcola’s production of Innocence would open the door to an unfamiliar world. Loher’s plays are relatively underperformed in the UK compared to the continent, where she is considered to be at the forefront of contemporary European theatre – she's known for her provocative style, and I went expecting to be disorientated.
And initially I was. Innocence opens with two illegal immigrants witnessing a young, red-headed woman stripping naked, wading into the sea and drowning, though whether by accident or intent no one can tell. There follows a series of scenes from the lives of other residents of this coastal town, seemingly disconnected save for the looming shadow of nearby apartment block ‘Suicide Tower’.
Images of darkness hang like salt in the air but there is comedy enough, too, from battleaxe Frau Zucker railing against her diabetes with the same breath as she puffs on a cigarette, to her undertaker son-in-law Franz bringing home his favourite cadavers to sit on the sofa.
The effect is of a collage whose pieces start to make sense only for the picture to blur again. The World is Unreliable – a book written by one character and read by another – is our best clue that Loher does not aim for any definite answers.
Stand-out performances include the trio of older actresses, Maggie Steed (last seen as Mrs Alving in the Arcola’s Ghosts), Ellen Sheean and Ann Mitchell, the latter stealing the show with some unexpected pathos as the aforementioned Frau Zucker. Nathaniel Martello-White is impassioned as the misguided Muslim newcomer, Fadoul, and Meredith MacNeill, better known for her kooky film roles, reveals new range as blind stripper Absolute.
David Tushingham has produced another effortless translation, highlighting the play’s universality without pandering to English reference points. And Lara Booth’s set, in conjunction with Alex Ward’s sparing lighting and video design, makes excellent use of the Arcola space.
Death, love, and god in a bag. Innocence left me with an overwhelming sense of the parallels between modern-day Britain and Germany, even as it highlighted the differences in our Theatre.