New German Cinema could be said to have come crashing to a halt on the day that Rainer Werner Fassbinder died of an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982. A frenetic filmmaker – some forty features in fifteen years – he was also, unlike his contemporaries such as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, an accomplished playwright.
His play The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was later turned into a film of the same name, and comes to Theatreworks now under the direction of Gary Abrahams. It’s a welcome return, if only as a measure of the distance sexual and identity politics have travelled since 1972, the year of the film’s release.
When we meet her, Petra [Luisa Hastings Edge] is a hard-living fashion designer whose star is on the rise. The play opens with her sprawled out on her bed after a night of heavy drinking, watched over by her silent personal assistant Marlene [Joanne Trentini, in one of the best performances of the night].
The play’s themes of sexual domination and extreme power dynamics is evidenced even in the opening unspoken moments, as Marlene tiptoes around Petra’s bedroom, carefully removing the detritus of last night’s revels, desperate not to wake the sleeping dragon.
The admittedly thin plot gets underway with the arrival of Petra’s best friend Sidonie [Nikki Shiels], who introduces Petra to the flawlessly beautiful wannabe model Karin [Anna May Samson]. Petra, having recently ditched her useless husband, falls precipitously in love with Karin, and as quickly as you can say ‘fade out’, the two women are enmeshed in a live-in love affair, with the hawkish Marlene eyeing their every move.
Psychosexual lesbian love triangles are, of course, so 70s, and setting the play in the period, while flirting sometimes dangerously with lurid camp, is the correct decision. It allows just the right amount of dramatic distance without descending into a purely theoretical abstraction. Petra is both a person and a symbol, and her histrionic meltdown is tragicomic as a result.
Acting a role like Petra is fiendishly difficult. Screechy, over-the-top scenery chewing is frankly mandatory, and Hastings Edge gives us plenty of that. But she also manages to make her wallowing self-pity and sliding self-control credible and strangely moving. Descent into the underworld may be generic but it feels particular when you are the one doing the descending, and Hastings Edge conveys the hopelessness and addiction of love/lust with skill.
Samson is a fine foil as the cool and conniving Karin, and Shiels is superb as the overtly warm bestie with the steely underbelly. Trentini’s Marlene is the silent heart beating under the surface of this production, and her wordless final scene with Petra is devastatingly good.
Abrahams directs with aplomb, even if he strips the play of much of its dreamy, otherworldly qualities. A kind of straight-laced naturalism results, which heightens the psychological realism of the piece, at the expense of atmosphere. The set [Romanie Harper] and costumes [Chloe Greaves] are exercises in period fetishism and are entirely in keeping with the mood.
The works of Fassbinder are important as key representations of transgression and difference in cinema and stage, harking back to Douglas Sirk and looking forward to American Hustle. It’s a fascinating exercise from Dirty Pretty Theatre, and definitely one to catch.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Friday 31 January 2014
Season continues to 8 February 2014
Bookings: (03) 9534 4879 or online at: www.theatreworks.org.au
For more information, visit: www.theatreworks.org.au for details.
Image: Luisa Hastings Edge as Petra von Kant
Review: Tim Byrne