Beware of Pity review – found in translation

Barbican, London
Simon McBurney’s fizzing take on Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel transcends language barriers… and can still be seen online

Before I was a theatre critic I used to be enraged by certain recommendations. Of shows in a language I didn’t understand. Of plays that had come off before I had read the review. Now I am writing one of those irritating recommendations. Beware of Pity, an adaptation of a novel by Stefan Zweig, is a co-production between Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin. It is in German – a language in which I’ve never got beyond Frühstück. But the imagination of Simon McBurney’s production leaps over even awkwardly placed subtitles. And, though staged for only a weekend, it can be watched on demand online until 26 February.

Zweig’s novel, one of the inspirations for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, was written on the brink of the second world war. It looks back 25 years to moments of shame. Anna Fleischle’s design projects large-scale catastrophe: video of first world war battlefields, a glass box with a bullet-ridden jacket from which blood finally seeps. In front of this is a queasy personal drama. A young cavalry officer asks the daughter of a landowner to dance. He does not know she is lame and cannot stand unaided. Mortified, he showers her with flowers, courts her, lies to her about her chances of recovery. His life turns into a sentimental parade of false feeling that ends in tragedy.

Zweig’s point is that as much harm is done by kind intentions and evasions as by conscious malevolence. This conviction is brilliantly realised by McBurney in a staging in which things are broken, amplified and, like the heroine, paralysed. Motive and consequence are fractured. One character lipsynchs another’s words. The moves in a game of chess are as loud as the cracking of an iceberg. The young girl is sometimes represented by an empty white dress.

It is, says McBurney, “not a play”: what we see are reflections of one man arguing with himself and his past. You could say it is static. In the way that electricity can be static. It fizzes on the spot.

Watch Beware of Pity online until 26 February


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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