“It’s an intense hour-long romp” says Misha Pinnington, who plays the Düsseldorfian Ripper Peter Kurten in Normal. The show, written by the ‘90s playwright Anthony Neilson, will attempt to scandalise audiences at the BT in 3rd week through its depiction of Kurten’s relationship with his lawyer, Justus Wehner, during the serial killer’s 1930 trial.
Director Sami Ibrahim was attracted by the play’s origin in the ‘in-yer-face’ movement, which he describes as “very confrontational and loud, not trying to be pleasant.” Normal is certainly not a play trying to be agreeable: “Kurten kills a lot of people and goes into quite nasty depth about it,” says Sami, “and there are lot of crude sex references, which is always nice.” Alex Shavick, who plays Kurten’s prim lawyer, notes that it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to laugh or be horrified: “There are times when it’s meant to be funny. Some lines are just ridiculous. It’s that mix of a nice bit of black humour with really intense killing.” As Misha explains, this mix presents a challenge for the actors, with it being “quite hard to get the balance exactly between menacing but not overtly menacing.”
Sami decided on a cross-shaped stage for the play, with the audience arranged in four blocks around it. Why this unusual set-up? “I guess part of it is it’s a bit of a novelty,” he says, adding that the thinness of the stage turns what could be a natural space into something more abstract. It makes you feel involved, he says, “but at the same time awkward and alienated by the whole thing. You have an actor standing there screaming so you’re kind of drawn in but also taken out a bit.”
Experimentation with emotional extremes during the rehearsal process is central to what Sami does, and the results are evident in the fervour of the actors’ performances. “We’ve gone through all of the scenes and tried them out in completely different ways,” says Alex, “then we pick the bits that we like and put it all together naturally.” For Sami it’s important to test out the emotional volatility of the play’s characters while rehearsing: “you try them at their most angry or most upset. It’s nice and flexible.”
What attracted Sami to the play? “The fact that there are 30 scenes is a fun prospect. It’s more interesting than having five scenes in an hour. You have to switch from different styles very quickly.” Scenes range from Kurten describing how he ‘seduced’ his wife (by picking up a saw and threatening her) to a black and white Chaplain-like mimed farce.
Despite the dark subject-matter, Sami thinks the play will brighten up our 3rd weeks: “It’ll be different from other stuff you’ll see around Oxford. It’ll be an experience.” Even those seeking a inexpensive thrill are provided for: “it’s not too long, it’s nice and cheap and hopefully you’ll come out of it being a bit shaken.” Thank God there’s a pub nearby.