‘Pains of Youth’ review

Queen’s Film Theatre

10th – 12th March

Set against the backdrop of Vienna in 1923, a period of political instability in a nation with an uncertain future, Pains of Youth concerns a group of medical students much more concerned with the sexual powers games played between each other than with what’s going on outside their boarding house.

The nominal lead character is Marie (Rebekah Wallace), who has recently graduated to become a fully-fledged doctor, and wants to throw a party to celebrate the occasion.  She lives with Desiree (Stella Green), a countess who fled from her family in an act of teenage rebellion, who makes no secret of her attempt to push her relationship with Marie into the Sapphic.  Marie, however, is in a relationship with Petrell (Amos McCormack), who, in turn, feels emasculated by Marie, who refers to him as ‘Dolly’.  Petrell, you see, is an aspiring writer, who is conducting an affair with Irene (Joel McCaffery), a young woman who takes great pride in the fact that she has worked to get as far as she has in her studies, as opposed to the wealthy Marie and Desiree.

So, a precarious situation, then.  Here, the Machiavellian instigator is Freder (David Paulin), a deceitful, wildly unpleasant but unstoppably charming example of the idle wealthy.  His words and actions end up causing a domino effect not necessarily for his own benefit (although things do turn out rather well for him in the end), but just because he can.  Not only does he have a destructive effect on all of those around him, they also seem genuinely happy with his poisoning of the well, such is his manipulative skill.

Originally written by Ferdinand Bruckner as Krankheit der Jugend in 1929, it was translated and revived by Martin Crimp in 2009, and, be it in the original text, or with the choices made by Crimp in translation, the script falls a little flat in places.  As you might have gathered from the description of events (I’ve only covered the start of the first act there), it can come across as something of a soap opera, albeit with inflections of absurdist theatre.  I cannot bring myself to be too hard on the script, as there are many witty lines (fantastically delivered by all – we shall get to that in a moment), but it did feel that the script seemed to take some shortcuts when it came to the narrative, which isn’t helped by strange cul-de-sacs that the script also seemed to chase itself into.

A good example of this, I would find, is the character Alt (Matty Jeffrey).  Now, the performance of the part itself was excellent, but the character seemed like a strange loose end, left dangling without much purpose.  Alt was a doctor, but was stuck off after euthanizing a baby who, according to Alt, was in a great deal of suffering, with no chance of escape.  Now, the backstory is there, but he doesn’t seem to serve any narrative purpose, apart from the occasional funny line. Perhaps I am missing something, but it was a great shame, because, as aforementioned, I felt that the performance otherwise was fantastic.

The one area of the script which, I felt, was most satisfactorily developed, was the sub-plot concerning Freder’s manipulation of the house’s maid, Lucy (Robynne Beers).  He successfully manages to transform her from a nervous wreck who can barely utter a sentence looking into the eye of who she’s speaking to, into a prostitute who now has a much higher sense of self-regard (although he also seems to have done this without her realisation that she’s been drafted into the game – after all, he lets her keep all the money).  For me, this parlour game that Freder plays with Lucy’s life (he repeatedly refers to these acts as ‘experiments’) perfectly displays and defines the character’s sociopathic world-view – once he’s done this to Lucy, it doesn’t cost him a thought.

Another, much more minor, criticism was something I picked up when reading the programme.  The director’s intention was to draw a parallel between the post-conflict youth of Austria in 1923, and the post-conflict youth of Northern Ireland in 2015.  It’s not a parallel that I could see from my reading of the play as performed, or the text itself, but I could be missing something crucial.  My reading of the piece was more along the lines of the political uncertainty and ennui that led to the rise of fascism in Austria in the 1930s, being something of a mirror to the ennui and lack of engagement in the political system as it currently operates in the UK (and particularly Northern Ireland) among youth, and what that might lead to.  There is also the age old theme of the idle rich manipulating the system to their own advantage as well, but, well, plus ca change.  Otherwise, though, the realisation of the piece was a triumph on the part of director Emily Foran.

The production itself, however, was a triumph.  I was very impressed with how elaborate the staging was, and the set design would have been impressive for any production, let alone a student one.

As noted before, the performances were faultless.  I do feel it would be unfair to single out a performer in particular as the best, but David Paulin certainly made the most of his role as Freder.  A perfectly judged, balanced performance.  He did not descend into moustache twirling villainy, but nor did he undersell the part.  As already noted, Matty Jeffery as Alt had many funny lines, and consistently pitched them perfectly (he was also the only cast member to play the role with a Germanic inflection, which was a small touch, but a good one).  Stella Green as Desiree wonderfully captured the spirit of the doomed young woman, flitting between extreme self-importance and self-loathing, whilst Rebekah Wallace as Marie (who I should probably have mentioned more) was stunning, as we watched her slide from a woman in complete control and restraint, losing her grip and becoming a cowering shadow of her former self.

I would have recommended seeing it as soon as you can, but, sadly, the performance that I saw was the last one scheduled.  Nevertheless, keep an eye out for the talent on display here.  I sincerely hope to see further impressive work in the future.

Performances: *****
Production: ****
Script: ***

John Logan

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