Beware of Pity

Beware of PityHofmiller, a young and charming soldier, has been invited to dinner in the big-end-of-town and to his delight is making a wonderful impression. He utters a faux pas when he asks Edith, daughter of Baron Kekesfalva, to dance: Edith is paralysed from the waist down. This moment is portrayed as so utterly mortifying to Hofmiller and Edith that the soldier must flee the castle.

He later makes amends by buying up the florist’s supply of roses, and becoming a regular visitor to Edith. Edith falls in love with her compassionate caller, and is delighted when he proposes to her. How will she react when she discovers his motivation is grounded in a sense of a pity and duty?

This play is based on the novel of the same name by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian early to mid twentieth century writer who fled persecution by the Nazis. Zweig was a friend of Sigmund Freud and wrote to him expressing gratitude for the debt his creative work owed to psychoanalysis: you can feel the presence of Thanatos here.

Zweig’s corpus has at times been supremely popular, and at others interest has dwindled: Beware Of Pity is considered one of his finest novels. The program states that this adaptation deals primarily with compassion, and how difficult it is to sincerely suffer with another.

This is a co-production between two companies: Schaubühne Berlin and Complicité – with direction by co-founder of Complicité, Simon McBurney. The former is an ensemble theatre that premiers at least ten shows per season; they are known for adopting a variety of approaches to directing, including new forms of dance and musical theatre. Their underlying philosophy is to search for a contemporary and experimental theatre language that focuses on storytelling.

Complicité is an innovative and highly lauded British company founded in 1983 which has garnered over fifty major theatre awards worldwide. McBurney experiments with one of the supposedly cardinal rules of writing by creating a show that places a large emphasis on telling rather than showing. When not in character, the actors take up position by the sides of the stage, like musicians in an orchestra, and narrate the action.

We hear stories within stories, palimpsest on palimpsest, as we journey through a showcase of pre-war agitation and cogitation that culminates in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and a subsequent headlong plunge into the new realm of total war: triggering one of the darkest nights of the twentieth century. Hofmiller gladly flees from his social torment to the physical and mental anguish of the battlefields.

This show furnishes an innovative theatrical experience. A state of high tension is maintained throughout, which heightens the experience of emotional and intellectual provocation. This one is spoken in German and presented with English surtitles.

Beware of Pity
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay (Sydney)
Performance: Wednesday 23 January 2019 – 7.30pm
Season: 23 – 27 January 2019

Image: Beware of Pity – photo by Gianmarco Bresadola

Review: Oliver Wakelin