Sweet Nothings – John Kachoyan and Pantsguys Productions bring David Harrower to new life. (Theatre Review)
There is a reason Arthur Schnitzler’s play Liebelei (Flirtation), also known as The Reckoning when it was adapted for film by the great Max Ophuls, Dalliance when it was rewritten by Tom Stoppard and Sweet Nothings when it was rewritten by David Harrower, has been adapted and rewritten so many times by such great artists as Ophuls, Stoppard and Harrower. Yes Schnitzler was a truly subversive playwright who spoke of taboos in his time that would shock audiences today, yes he had a talent for pulling out he subtleties that move between people in love, but beyond this, Schnitzler had a remarkable talent for connecting with the deeper nuances of society that play themselves out in the bedroom. When two people get together to perform some act of love, there are politics of great significance playing out between them, and true to the spirit of democracy, it is not the truth of the motivation that become fact, but the narrative with the greatest number of supporters that defines each action.
No one understands this complex relationship better than the girl who fell in love with the wrong man and wound up being labeled a slut for her troubles. Often, and this is still true today, it is the behaviours of the male that will define the morality of the female, and often not only the behaviours but his reputation. We may scoff at this sort of treatment in this modern-day, but the law courts tell a different story, when women have terrible trouble getting their perspective on certain situations, finding their clothing, their motivations and their sexual desire all conspiring against them to relieve a male of the burden of responsibility or properly examining his actions. The other side of this coin is that a man is still respected for sexual prowess; it’s almost as if through the sexual act itself a man can steal societal credibility from a female. It is Christine’s great cry of “What am I?” uttered as the pieces of the puzzle come together to reveal what she has, affectively, done to herself that brilliantly reveal this central problem for women, and of course men.
However, despite the surface clarity of the story of the duped Christine, Schnitzler (and Harrower through him), expose far more than sexual inequalities in Sweet Nothings. Crucial to Frtiz’s ability to dupe Christine is his financial position as a wealthy playboy, and Christine’s as a lower class, impoverished worker. As is often the case, the poor can’t afford bad morals, and yet wear the brunt of their consequences. It is Fritz’s wealth, not his libido that leads him to Christine, for he has been dallying with a married wealthy socialite and, on the suggestion of his equally wealthy playboy friend Theadore, decides to use some poor (impoverished) women to relieve the burden of his ‘feelings’ of love. Money is as crucial to the way Christine is eventually perceived by society, as her sex.
Couple this with the action in the great love affair between Fritz and Christine taking place around a stage. Christine is the daughter of a pit violinist and a theatre seamstress herself. She watches Fritz (from below and the sides) who makes a great show of being an audience by sitting in the box. This is the theatrics of love, the hysteria if you will, when everyone acts according to script and performance requirements, almost as if the roles are somehow inevitable. Christine subconsciously wants to subvert this process, as only someone who is a victim of it can, and yet in the end it is the goofy Fritz who will pay the greatest price for the part he agreed to play. Love between Christine and Fritz was always impossible, and it was a refusal to face facts that forced both their hands, both of them becoming victims to the theatricality of love.
What was I?
What was I to him?
I was a pastime. Over her, he was ready to die.
But this is the strength of Sweet Nothings. As director John Kachoyan says, “sex is never just sex”, and sweet nothings are never nothing. It is in this spirit that Pantsguys Productions decided to produce this fascinating play, with a wonderful cast who effectively bring the subtleties of Harrower’s play to the ATYP Under the Warf theatre space. Graeme McRae is a lost and wandering Fritz who repeatedly turns to his playboy image in a kind of relief that he has some sort of anchor, while Owen Little is his friend Theodore, shadow and guide in the world of philandering foolishness. Matilda Ridgway is a gentle, lovely Christine who could never be the sort of woman society wants to label her, while the fizzy and spirited Clementine Mills plays her Mizi as the antithesis of Christine, a woman who has accepted a version of reality that will play itself out as the most likely scenario. Lucy Miller is a standout as the calculating, horrifying Katharine, the busy-body neighbour that misses nothing and judges everything and Mark Lee is the hardworking, gently adoring farther of Christine, Weiring, a man whose faith in doing the right thing turns against him when the harsh practicalities of life move in.
Much of Harrower’s play occurs in doubles, with characters pitted against each other or used concurrently as each others shadow: Christine / Mizi, Fritz / Theodore, Katharina / Weiring, Christine / the lady in black velvet, Fritz / Weiring, Theodore / the lady in black velvet and so on. It’s almost as if Harrower and Kachoyan, through him sense the manipulations of love that constitute our unconscious motivations and desires. All the characters are either in battle against, or standing beside each other at different times, each with their own fears driving their private manipulations.
Pantsguys Productions have given us a great production of Sweet Nothings, with a final extra shout out to Sophie Fletcher who provides exquisitely detailed sets, that occur so naturally in the great warehouse style space, and subtle costuming that add to the timelessness of the language and narrative.
Sweet Nothings is on until 23 November.