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The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Photo by Clare Hawley

Mophead Productions in association with Red Line Productions present, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, translated by David Tushingham, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomooloo. 11 October – 12 November.

The writer of THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, made 40 feature length films, 2 Television film series, 3 short films, 4 video productions, 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays, and gave 36 acting roles in his own and others’ films. He worked as well as author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor and theatre manager. Openly homosexual, he married twice. He was accused variously by detractors of being anti-communist, male chauvinist, anti-semitic and even anti-gay! His well documented violent, sado-maschistic life style contrasted with his films that as often as not, also, demonstrated a deep sensitivity to social misfits and a hatred of institutionalised violence. He died in 1982, at the age of only 37, from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. A prodigy? A profligate?

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, in this newish translation by David Tushingham (including some topical updates?), tells of the story of a successful fashion designer, Petra Von Kant (Sara Wiseman), who despite her professional achievements and standing, does not have an accompanying personal happiness (Fassbinder: writing from life for his art?!) Her professional success has routed her temperament to one that demonstrates itself as professionally manipulative, personally narcissistic and sadistic, where, it seems, the gaining of her ‘power’ has corrupted her absolutely. With her adoring secretary, Marlene (Matilda Ridgeway), who has become her enabler as a co-dependent ‘gimp’ (the willing acceptor of every verbal and physical humiliation as an act of devotion/love), Petra meets, through an old friend of the fashion industry, Sidonie (Eloise Snape), a young woman called Karin (Taylor Ferguson), who bedazzles her into a vulnerable self-indulgent pursuit of a same sex relationship – Petra has had two marriages. Besotted, shot through by Eros, Petra becomes the ‘victim’ of the whims of working class Katrin and is spectacularly distraught when she is, ultimately, deserted. Neither her daughter, Gabrielle (Mia Rorris), or her mother, Valerie (Judith Gibson), can completely calm her and so she turns to Marlene for succour, but it, too, is too little, too late.

This moral ‘fable’ of sexual hysteria – cautionary tale –  (of a Greek Mythological scale, it seems to me), is directed by Shane Bosser as a naturalistic melodrama, played at a sedate pace, in glamorous, gorgeous circumstances. Georgia Hopkins, the Set Designer, has made the small Old Fitz stage into a deceptively capacious ‘Aladdin’s’ cavern: an all black surround with mirrored walls, on the sides, that reflect back to each other, widening the perceptual depth of the acting space, with chase-light fittings, scurrying around the edges of the floor and fixed furnishings to give a contemporary post-modern theatre vibe to the work, which with flash camera effects between scenes of posed models, facilitated by the lighting design of Alex Berlage, to have the artificiality of the tempestuous emotional indulgences of Petra’s world established. Add the meticulous and beautiful Costuming, by Daniel Learmont, that visually reflects the glamour of a retro-feel for the 50’s and 60’s of Hollywood, and it, too, reverberates with artificiality. Against which, the acting style reached for by Mr Bosser, with his actors, stands in stark contrast: a naturalism of overplayed emotionalities. Fassbinder was enamoured, indeed, by the women’s films of Douglas Sirk (e.g. ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS [1955], IMITATION OF LIFE [1959] , etc, etc) but, in all of that turbulent stylistic ‘lushness’ of all the elements of design, Sirk always counterbalanced with the skill and management of the acting style. Here, however, that balance between the contemporary ‘cool lushness’/formality of the Design stylistics, seem to be at odds with the exaggerated (hollow) Acting stylistics, Directed by Mr Bosser.

The acting style led and demonstrated by Ms Wiseman seems stilted, histrionic, with pre-conceived ‘heavyweight’ decisions. Ms Wiseman in the central role of Petra – the character never leaves the stage – seems to be played completely externally and painfully naturalistically (the late soliloquy, in the writing, is very difficult to experience – it is so self-affecting, that the actor’s indulgences are a very discomforting ‘display’ to witness). It is as if the actor believes she is, simply, the only ‘tool’ of the writer to tell this story – the performance seems to be, a conceptualised construct of every moment of the character’s journey and it happens (will happen) no matter what influence the other actors, as characters, are meant to evince on the action of the scene with her. It is as if Ms Wiseman is acting in an enclosed bubble. Ms Wiseman is in control of what is happening no matter that there are other characters telling stories as part of the process and that there is an active listener, the audience, too, wanting to be regarded in the storytelling. It is as if we are not meant to be part of this imaginative journey with her or that we are meant to have catharsis with her, but that we are simply watchers/admirers of the ‘agony’ of Petra as created by Ms Wiseman.

Ms Ferguson, as Katrin, has the most difficult obstacle to create drama on the stage as the principal antagonist, in the writing, against the protagonist, Petra, for nothing that she offers to Ms Wiseman has any affect and nothing is directed towards her from Ms Wiseman to affect her development in the scene. Ms Ferguson is left isolated on stage with no communicative exchange going-on between the characters to assist her storytelling with clarity. Ms Ferguson has demonstrated to us in recent work here, in this theatre (BELLEVILLE) and elsewhere, recently, GOOD WORKS, at the Darlinghurst Theatre, and way back in her debut in Sydney, MISS JULIE, for Belvoir, that she is no slouch in the acting department – she is no slouch here either, its just that Petra does not ever really hear or see Katrin except as a cue that it is her turn to speak and move again according to a pre-supposed ‘plan’.

This is true, unfortunately, for all the other actors as well (though the veteran, Ms Gibson, from NZ, seems to defy the lack of offers in her small stage time), they are treated by Ms Wiseman, as if they were mannequins in the fashionable environment of this fashion design studio. This version of Petra Von Kant has devolved into a one woman show, where neither physical action nor vocal inflection or truthful in-the-moment experiencing-ownership – occurs the whole of the 90 minutes, between the leading player and the other supports. There is no real life happening on the stage. It is (was) at my performance, a performance of the play that was dead on delivery.

Ms Ridgeway playing Marlene, the mute ‘lackey’ of Petra’s – does not require any attention from Ms Wiseman, for her role is told through ‘re-action’ rather than a give-and-take of ‘action’, and so is able to independently create an impression of some satiric storytelling arc and mark.

After the ‘rough’ contemporary politics of the recent LOOK BACK IN ANGER, here at the Old Fitz, I had looked, expectedly, with some interest, as to how this famous bit of writing would hold up on the stage, in 2016 (besides it having six roles for women, which is always good to see). For, at the time – 1972 – THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, was the subject of controversy from sections of the community: lesbians and feminists accused Fassbinder of misogny (in that the play was presenting women complicit in their oppression). He was accused of being homophobic and  sexist. Since, we had seen recently another successful female character, Gloria in GLORIA, burn out into an hysterical set of behaviours, up at the Griffin, what I saw here was another example, written by a man, of another woman crashing hysterically in the firmament of life in an epic centre stage self-made cataclysm. Is there more to Fassbinder’s play (film) than that? This production at the Old Fitz does not say so.

More importantly, I ask for information, are there no plays telling of successful women who do not crash and burn?