From backstage farces to postmodern deconstruction, theatre has a habit of turning its gaze on itself. This tendency is pushed to breaking point in Werner Schwab‘s last play, presented in its English-language premiere by Just a Must. In what the Austrian playwright christened his "theatre-extinction comedy", the theatre has ceased to mean and the real world and the stage world are collapsing into one another. As implied in the title, Schwab’s is a theatre stumbling towards its death, exhaling its final laboured breaths.
While employing the familiar device of a play within a play, Dead At Last, No More Air is far from the kind of meta-theatrics that UK audiences are accustomed to. There is a plot, involving a director’s frustrated attempts to put on a new play and his eventual, doomed decision to bringing in residents from an old people’s home to replace the actors, but the narrative is just one element among many. The language of the play is textural rather than dramatic, a language dense with ideas and referents. Intentionally, it bombards and overwhelms its audience; just as we are grappling with one loaded sentence, the script has moved onto another, leaving us dizzied and disorientated.
Director Vanda Butkovic tackles Meredith Oakes‘ wordy English translation with a playful, darkly funny approach. As in the text, certain contemporary performance tropes are gleefully mocked, while much taking on and off of ill-fitting wigs by the performers introduces both madcap comedy and an apt critique of representation. Taking its lead from Schwab, the performance style insistently breaks down distinctions between the real and the theatrical. Simon Donger’s scenography, meanwhile, latches onto the air of the title, cleverly using a pile of air mattresses and a series of inflatable props to create a stage environment that is in constant dialogue with the play.
As a cultural gesture, Just a Must’s commitment to introducing European theatre in translation to British audiences is both exciting and necessary. There is undoubtedly a swell of interest, particularly among young theatre-makers, in experimental work from the continent, which is rarely supported outside the walls of large institutions such as the Barbican. To see this work getting a rare – and intelligent – airing on the fringe is thrilling in itself.
But transporting this piece to a very different theatrical culture comes with its own challenges. As with all theatre about theatre, Dead At Last, No More Air relies to an extent on an audience who are in the know, but here it helps to possess a theatrical savviness that extends beyond the UK. Just a Must’s production, as much as it tries to make Schwab’s play work for British audiences, is undeniably a bit of a difficult watch, though it manages to remain consistently compelling even in its more impenetrable moments. Occasionally bewildering, but for the most part enjoyably and thought-provokingly so.
Dead At Last, No More Air runs at Camden People's Theatre until 17 May.