When a rhinoceros charges across the town square one Sunday afternoon, Berenger thinks nothing...… Read more
The Royal Court Theatre presents
The Arsonists ( Archived )
In repertoire with Rhinoceros
By Max Frisch
1 September - 16 December 2007
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
in a new translation by Alistair Beaton
Fires are becoming something of a problem. But Biedermann has it all under control. A respected member of the community with a loving wife and a flourishing business, surely nothing can get to him. The great philanthrope, he is happy to meet his civic duty and give shelter to two new houseguests, and when they start filling the attic with petrol drums, he’ll help them wire the fuse.
Frisch’s parable about accommodating the very thing that will destroy you is given its first major UK revival since its Royal Court premiere in 1961, which was directed by Lindsay Anderson with Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast.
The Arsonists, directed by Ramin Gray, is performed in repertoire with Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which is directed by Dominic Cooke, and features largely the same cast.
“Beautifully performed and inexhaustibly provocative in the best possible way.”
Director Ramin Gray
Designer Anthony Ward
Lighting Johanna Town
Sound* Christopher Shutt*
“Ramin Gray…has ensured that Frisch feels topical and provocative.”
Cast Zawe Ashton, Michael Begley, Paul Chahidi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacqueline Defferary, David Hinton, Will Keen, Munir Khairdin, Claire Prempeh, Alwynne Taylor, Graham Turner 4 stars The Guardian
“Ramin Gray’s production…is a stunning renewal of possibilities in the home of new theatre writing.”
“Keen plays [Biedermann] brilliantly.”
“The supporting performers are excellent.”
“Paul Chahidi delivers a great comic turn.”
The Daily Mail
Media partner: The Independent
Tale of three fire-starters burns bright in the age of terror
The Arsonists 4 stars Michael Billington
7 November 2007
Will Keen walks on stage as Biedermann at the start of Max Frisch’s play. Producing a packet of fags from his pocket and, glancing nervously at a mildly protesting audience, he says: “It’s not easy these days lighting a cigarette.” It is a perfect opening, both edgy and funny, and a reminder that Frisch’s dazzling parable, written in 1958, has gained extra resonance in our apprehensive age.
Frisch’s theme, as Alistair Beaton’s sharp new translation makes clear, is bourgeois guilt. Biedermann, who has lately sacked an employee in his hair-rejuvenating firm, is driven by an uneasy conscience to welcome a series of insidious intruders into his home. First there is the ostensibly homeless Schmitz, who is as fussily demanding as Pinter’s tramp in The Caretaker. Then comes Schmitz’s suave mate, Eisenring, who stashes petrol-filled drums in Biedermann’s attic and politely asks his host to help him measure the detonating wire. Even though the town is filled with fires, Biedermann lavishes attention on his guests in the erroneous belief that, by appeasing them, he can literally defuse their threat.
The beauty of Frisch’s play is that it is compact, well-characterised and easily applicable to today’s world (unlike Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, with which it plays in rep at the Royal Court). Given the presence of a third arsonist, driven by a belief in the virtue of wholesale destruction, it is impossible not to relate the play to international terrorism. But it could equally be seen as an attack on our complicity in governmental adherence to nuclear missiles. However you take it, the play works because we recognise part of ourselves in Biedermann: the classic bourgeois trimmer who, though aware of impending disaster, does nothing to prevent it.
Keen plays him brilliantly. Forever creating a circle with thumb and forefinger in an effort to impose his will, he backs off at the first hint of opposition. Ramin Gray’s production, played on Anthony Ward’s immaculate, glass-walled set, boasts first-rate support from Paul Chahidi and Benedict Cumberbatch as the invading arsonists and Jacqueline Defferary as the hero’s worried wife.
Admittedly, after the recent tragic blazes in Warwickshire and California, it becomes a little hard to accept Frisch’s serio-comic Greek chorus of firefighters. But otherwise, this is less a piece of whimsically jocular absurdism than a timeless political satire.
Playing with fire
The Arsonists 4 stars Benedict Nightingale
7 November 2007
The dark comedy that Max Frisch wrote in 1958 comes to Sloane Square as a companion piece to Rhinoceros, which Ionesco wrote in 1960 and the Royal Court revived last September. Its an apt pairing, since The Arsonists also embodies a postwar dismay at Europes susceptibility to fascism. Where the Romanian imagines civilised townspeople transformed into rampaging pachyderms, the Swiss presents us with a wealthy bourgeois trying and failing to placate the fire-raisers who have inveigled their way into his attic.
But Ramin Gray’s lucid staging of Alistair Beaton’s cool, incisive translation isnt only about Nazism. Thats evident both from Anthony Ward’s set, which comes with furniture so chic and gadgetry so smart that it has a futuristic feel, and from the looks of the unnamed ideologue who gives backing to the firebugs. Is it just an accident that Munir Khairdin’s doctor of philosophy, so far from resembling Goebbels, sports a beard rather like those you see on Muslim men?
Anyway, the effect is to ensure that the play comes across as an up-to-date attack on the overtolerant, whether they’re confronted with violent neo-Nazis or Islamic extremists trying to bomb their way to the caliphate. Not that theres anything attractive about Will Keen’s Biedermann, or Everyman. He’s spoilt, selfish and callous, and gives houseroom first to Paul Chahidi’s brutish but sly Schmitz, then to Benedict Cumberbatch’s genially psychopathic Eisenring, because he fears them and hopes that his friendship will tame them.
That was how many educated Germans reacted to Hitler, ignoring the evidence of Mein Kampf as wilfully as Biedermann embraces arsonists who make little or no effort to conceal their aims. Are we British also underreacting to the potential terrorists in our midst? Are we in effect handing them matches in a futile attempt to ingratiate ourselves with them, as Biedermann ends up doing? I doubt if Gray wishes to push his interpretation that far, but he has certainly ensured that Frisch feels topical and provocative.
Maybe Keen could tremble a bit, as the script demands, but the rage that sometimes bursts through his surface complacency does much to suggest Biedermann’s unease. And the supporting performers are excellent, down to the uniformed firefighters who act as a chorus thats Sophoclean in its passivity and cries of woe, but not in its refusal to blame fate for disaster. Reason can save us from evil, it intones and, whatever form our modern arsonists take, that’s surely worth repeating.
Still Frisch and incendiary
Nicholas De Jongh
7 October 2007
Take a black comedy that shades into the darker recesses of Theatre of the Absurd. Add in a prophetic chorus of helmeted Firemen who sound heavily schooled in classical Greek tragedy and TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. You will then find yourself caught in the bracingly strange and sinister world of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, a mid-20th-century Absurdist play of timeless vitality.
Neatly updated to the present in Ramin Gray’s production and couched in Alistair Beaton’s fresh, felicitous translation, The Arsonists sets its critical sights on people too fearful to face glaring reality: Frisch took his negative inspiration from the appeasing Czech president who took into government Communists intent upon destroying the country’s independence, lofty German intellectualsand Jews who would not believe Hitler was intent upon destroying them.
An allegory and parable is framed about bourgeois guilt and moral myopia. Frisch’s prosperous crooked businessman, Will Keen’s Mr Biedermann, knows the town is possessed by an epidemic of arsonists, who wheedle their way into homes on pretexts of needing a place to sleep.Yet he still allows an ingratiating ex-wrestler (the insufficiently pugilistic Paul Chahidi), who comes knocking at his opulent front door, to stay the night.
A fascinating helter-skelter ride into the realms of absurd drama and gallows humour begins. Schmidt , together with Benedict Cumberbatch’s far too mild-mannered former waiter Eisenring, assemble oil drum, detonators and fuse-wire in the attic. Keen’s modestly furious Biedermann cannot bring himself to tell a visiting policeman the terrible truth. “If I report them to the police I know I’ll be making enemies of them,” he later explains to his wife Babette, as he tries to justify himself.
This comic-absurd excuse characterises Biedermann’s placatory, guilt-laden dealings with the fireraisers, right down to a grisly dinner party that serves as prelude to a literally explosive finale. Gray achieves a final, provocative coup when Munir Khairdin’s intellectual arsonist, presumably a Muslim terrorist, breaks ranks with Schmidt and Eisenring, because they simply enjoy setting houses on fire.
Yet Gray’s lethargic production played out on Anthony Ward’s opulent white and perspex set, needs to convey a far stronger, climactic sense of anxiety, foreboding and panic. Keen’s phlegmatic Biedermann and Jacqueline Defferary’s subdued Babette are comically competent but must operate on a far higher emotional level to make this thrilling classic fully operational.
7 November 2007
“Its not easy these days, lighting a cigarette … everyone thinks the whole worlds about to go up in flames.”
The first line of Alistair Beaton’s brilliant new translation of The Arsonists by Max Frisch better known in English as The Fire-Raisers puts the play in a nutshell. It’s delivered by Will Keen as Gottlieb Biedermann, a highly strung businessman who deals in hair restorers while harbouring the agents of his own destruction.
The arsonists who arrive in his sleek modern house designed by Anthony Ward as a suburban show-room of glass, white walls, curvilinear furniture and chrome and silver trappings are as mysterious as Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party.
The first, Schmitz (Paul Chahidi), is an ex-wrestler from a deprived background. The second, Eisenring (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a former head waiter with a taste for the high life. They are connecting up oil drums – these float in to fill the upper level of the set and are disowned by the third conspirator (Munir Khairdin), a philosopher who may be a Muslim fundamentalist, as irresponsible: they do it because they like doing it.
The enemy within, the tiger at the gates; Frisch’s 1958 play has a resonant metaphorical richness that was first taken to reflect the dangers of political infiltration by Communists in Czechoslovakia, or Hitler’s inflammatory bluffing in Germany, as well as the nuclear threat in our midst. Lindsay Anderson’s Royal Court premiere in 1961 (the play was seen on a double bill with a Victorian farce, and featured Colin Blakely, Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast) ended with a film of an atomic bomb explosion.
The social comedy of Biedermann and his bird-brained materialist wife (Jacqueline Defferary) coping with the intrusion and then embracing their guests (and their fate) is sombrely offset against the silent, brooding figure of the widow of an employee Biedermann has callously dismissed; this skilled colleague, an inventor, has killed himself.
Most strikingly, a chorus of fire-fighters is on permanent alert for a threat they know they can never fully combat. The recent tragedy in a Warwickshire warehouse gives their presence a grim immediacy. As somebody says, These days, most people dont believe in God but they believe in the fire brigade.
Ramin Gray’s production – a companion to Dominic Cooke’s of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros- and performed by the same company in repertoire is a stunning renewal of possibilities in the home of new theatre writing, providing a welcome jolt to the predominant school of dreary sitcom naturalism. It is beautifully performed and inexhaustibly provocative in the best possible way. A famous classic has been restored as though it was a brand new piece of writing. Which, really, in Beaton’s text, it is anyway.
JERWOOD THEATRE DOWNSTAIRS
01 November – 15 December
Tickets 25, 15, 10 (Tue-Sat). Mondays all seats 10. 500 Tickets 5 for 25s and under*. Education mat 7.50 students. Groups of 6+ 5 off top price. Concession 10*. *ID required, not bookable online, subject to availability.
Tue 6 Nov, 7pm
Sign-Interpreted Performance(s) Mon 26 Nov
Tue 13 Nov
Thu 15 Nov, 2.30pm
2.30pm – check perf schedule on main show page
2.30pm – check perf schedule on main show page
approximately 1 hour 30 minutes with no interval