Peacock Theatre, London
February 1, 2018
The title, Lebensraum, sends horrified shivers down the spine even before the curtain goes up. Jakop Ahlbom states that it is a tribute to Buster Keaton, but surely he cannot be blind to the genocidal reference that conjures up far more meaning than mere “living space”?
The physical skills of the performers are never in doubt, although one longed for a simple piano accompaniment with which we usually view Buster Keaton instead of the ultra-loud hillbilly and pop blasted out by the two musicians collectively known as the Alamo Race Track. It was at least 30 minutes into the evening before I realised that they were singing in English, so poor was the diction and so distorted the over-amplification.
Two men live in one room. They are dressed identically and the room seems to be a mirror image of itself. Several elderly lampshades hang. It’s weird. As the men eat a meal, we discover that condiments are also suspended. There are lots of gags involving swinging them across the table and at one point, allowing them to fly into a box. There is some clever and rather scary work involving a long A-frame ladder (how many mime artists does it take to change a light bulb type stuff and the inevitable horizontal swinging and ducking routine). It is rather like a low-tech version of the opening of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Brazil: too lazy to pick up and manipulate your own toothbrush? OK, we’ll automate it for you. However, whereas Gilliam uses it to illustrate a dysfunctional dystopia, Ahlbom seems to be inviting us to consider this appropriate and funny.
The men finish their meal and don white coats. They string ropes across the stage, solely it seems to invent tripping over them gags. They dive through windows, through a picture, through the wall. Then they decide that they need company.
When Silke Hundertmark joins the men, a line gets crossed. Whilst her virtuosity is never in doubt, how she is placed and treated by the men beggars belief. She spends a long period as a very convincing ‘doll’. There is more than a hint of the sex toy, but then she is given a mop and bucket. After much, literal, man-handling, she becomes the subject of an ‘operation’; not good enough for them apparently. Finally, the men descend into a fight and, at last, the lights go down.
After the joys of Ahlbom’s Horror, it is all incredibly disappointing. Judith Wendel’s dramaturgy is weak and having the same gag repeated rapidly becomes boring, however adept are the performers. The slapstick raised a few belly laughs from the audience (noticeably mostly on the part of men) but didn’t move the action along. However, the major horror is the misogyny.
At best, the woman is treated as a domestic drudge, at worst as the butt of treatment that reminds us of the shocking level of domestic and sexual violence meted out to them on a daily basis. In this weird world, it seems no women are capable of inventing an ingenious living space as the men have. As for the extended time in which we are asked to watch Hundertmark being tossed around the stage and flung onto furniture, it is less and less possible to see her as a mechanical creation of the men and more and more apparent that this is a flesh and blood woman in spite of the fact that she almost convinces us that she might be made of rubber and elastic.
A sense of humour failure on my part? You bet