We are intruding. Frank, Claudia and their son Andi are about to move to Canada, so we enter a kingdom of boxes standing metaphorically for all the hidden twists and turns about to be laid out in front of us. The set is held together by a battered door, which will turn into the silent protagonist of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s eclectic play Die Frau von früher, the first piece of contemporary German writing on an Oxford stage for a very long time. Too long a time, the reviewer cannot help adding.
Like us, Romy Vogtländer, Frank’s affair of yesteryear, barges into the house. She has come to reclaim what he promised her 24 years ago, eternal love – or so she thinks. As the play progresses, Claudia and Romy’s fight for Frank becomes more aggressive, and we recognise what Romy really is: a siren singing her enchanting song, bewitching both son and father all too quickly – a fine delivery by Johanna Hockmann. We also witness the crumbling of Claudia and Frank’s marriage, portrayed effectively by Sarina Agkatsev and Linus Schumacher, who shines most brightly when raising his voice or losing his composure, thus adding more depth to the otherwise deliberately colourless object of Romy’s affection. Frank and Romy’s summer of love is mirrored by Andi (Oliver Sieweke) and his girlfriend Tina (Phoebe Hames), who serves as a commentator on the events on stage, and is aptly placed amongst the audience by director Benjamin Schaper.
Schimmelpfennig’s play is structurally challenging due to its nonlinear plot, as well as the crossover between boulevard comedy, farce and some tragic elements. The attempt at creating flashbacks within the scenes with the aid of music, sound and lighting was not always successful, and felt out of place at times. When the music was cut short abruptly in order to mark a transition, the acting could have done with more precision.
The characters are no more than puppets on a string moved by invisible forces, which poses a particular challenge to the actors who would have benefited from more careful direction at times, especially in emotionally charged or more chilling moments. Phoebe Hames as the only non-native speaker of the cast has to be commended for battling successfully with Schimmelpfennig’s stilted diction, and Sarina Agkatsev garnered well-earned laughs for her nagging Claudia.
Towards the end, the pace of the beginning levelled off and the climax appeared slightly underdeveloped, but all in all, the play deserved an audience appreciating a piece of unpredictable German theatre.
A promising start for what will hopefully become an institution in the future, the Oxford German play.
PHOTO / Angelika Benz