Normal: Too ‘in-yer-face’ to scare some

James Waddell ✮✮✮✮

Anthony Neilson’s complex psychological thriller traces the manipulative relationship of Peter Kürten, the infamous Düsseldorf Ripper (perpetrator of an estimated 60 murders) with Justus Wehner, the repressed, virginal lawyer who defends him at his trial. As Wehner is drawn deeper into his defendant’s psyche, his fragile sense of morality crumbles, and the central concern of the play reveals itself: “Do we bear monsters, or do we create them?” With a play which is as complicated as it is downright terrifying, Sami Ibrahim’s production gets the balance of horror set-pieces and psychological nuance just right, with pitch-perfect performances from the central cast members and the injection of an intellectual twist.

Yes, the stereotypes of horror are all there – the power-cut, the darkness – but they are never allowed to fall into cliché. The reason why Wehner’s futile calls into the gloom for the prison guards are so chilling is that it is not only his physical safety but his entire system of values that is under threat from Kürten. The subtlety is enhanced by Alex Shavick’s impeccable turn as Wehner. Shavick doesn’t miss a beat in his compelling portrayal of naïve moral certainty meticulously unpicked and finally shattered.

At the centre of the play’s narrative web, though, is Kürten himself. Or, in fact, herself. In the slight and slinky frame of Misha Pinnington, what she lacks in physical domination over Wehner she more than makes up for in perversely potent erotic mastery. It is darned smart as a symbolic device – the kind of rocket-fuel that distinguishes a good production from one that takes a new approach to its material. Kürten’s methodical emasculation of Wehner takes on a new resonance, as it progresses from sexual teasing to full-on assault: “Do you know what I was doing…when you were getting all confused at the sight of your mother’s bloomers?! I was fucking dogs and sheep and pigs whilst sticking them with knives!” The taunting is more devastating coming from a female actor than a simple extreme of masculine bravado could ever be.

The set forms a sparse crucible but is as formally detailed and well-executed as the rest of the production. This is not quite a flawless piece, though: Emily Troup is forgettable as Frau Kürten (perhaps appropriately, given the passivity of her character). But the real focus of the production is not on her, but on the nebulous psychology of Kürten himself. Scientists attempted to explain his amorality through cerebral abnormality, but they failed to rationalise his evil just as comprehensively as Wehner, unable to find a distinguishing mark that would separate him from normal society. Thus, we are left with the chilling resonance of Kürten’s closing words as he goes to the scaffold – “I am not the only, Justus… as we speak they are being created, assembled…And they are, all of them, normal.”


Ash Garrett ✮✮

For a play proudly billed as part of the ‘in-yer-face’ movement, this was a disappointingly normal experience. This was partly the fault of the script, which is shallow and smattered with trite lines, and partly the fault of the production itself. One would expect a play which deals with trial of the psychopathic Düsseldorf Ripper to chill, to horrify, to perversely enlighten. To do something. Instead, this play falls foul of the worst aspects of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, prizing attempting to shock over attempting to create a sense of character depth. 

And yet it’s not even that shocking: painting the air blue, presenting a murderer without remorse and making explicit references to bestiality all seemed to shock the actors more than the audience. Thus there was a perceivable gap between stage response and audience response, which naturally dealt a blow to the force of the emotions the actors were trying to convey. The most appropriate reaction to some of the attempts at outrage was laughter.

Moments with the greatest potential to shock were dealt with strangely by Ibrahim’s direction. Renaissance drama, drawing on Classical convention, realised that the greatest fears lurk in what is unseen and only sensed; greater fear is induced by bloody deeds carried out in the darkness off-stage than those witnessed centre-stage. There is even less horror created when you can’t fully invoke the brutal or gory, but still leave what ought to be horrific half-conjured on stage. A hammer-blow can’t crush an actor’s head in the BT, so don’t slam the hammer down next to their head – we witness the act not carried through. In the light we can know, in the darkness, in the suspended moment, we are unsure. Either drive for the truly gruesome or leave the imagination to conjure its own worst nightmare in the shadows. This production played a half-way house.

However, in a smart bit of casting, Misha Pinnington delivers a fine performance as Peter Kürten , injecting a subtle eroticism into the character which makes the sexual teasing of Peter’s lawyer feel deeper and more penetrating. She captures the border between calculatingly sinister and recklessly playful and her appearances carry the show. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Alex Shavick as the lawyer. His expressions and generic gestures of worry were too immediately leant on and were over-worked from the start, giving himself no room to push through to emotional highpoints that (should have) occurred later in the show. It all felt too contrived,  I didn’t believe he actually was the naive, troubled lawyer he was playing, which is surely the first hurdle an actor has to take you over in a performance.

The set, sparse and resembling a cross (a symbolic nod to the offer of redemption trampled upon), worked well practically in that it allowed most of the audience a clear view of the show. That, however, could be seen as a mixed blessing.

PHOTO/ Mary Clapp