Tom Fool (Orange Tree Theatre)

Posted: March 20, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: The Other Richard

Writer: Franz Xaver Kroetz

Director: Diyan Zora

⭐️⭐️⭐️

By 1978, when Mensch Meir (Tom Fool) premiered, Franz Xaver Koetz had become Germany’s most performed living playwright. The play suggests that, in chronicling family dysfunction, he could be the German equivalent to his United Kingdom contemporary, Alan Ayckbourn, but his characters are perhaps one step further down the social ladder and his themes are more overtly laden with left wing sentiments.

Director Diyan  Zora’s revival of the play, performed from a translation by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, remains rooted very firmly in 1970’s Germany. As such, it struggles to find contexts in time or place.  that could connect it strongly to modern Britain, its social attitudes and politics looking conspicuously dated and, of course, foreign. However, it still fascinates as a curiosity akin to a museum exhibit and the comic drama which edges towards tragedy still grips.

41-year-old Otto (Michael Shaeffer) describes himself as “a human screwdriver” in his mind-numbing low skilled job at a car factory. His wife Martha (Anna Francolini) does not question her role as home maker, spending her 850 DM per week housekeeping allowance frugally. Their teenage son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room of the family’s small flat; he has finished school and has no job, so he does nothing, rejecting parental pleas to take up the law or dentistry by stating a preference for starting a bricklaying apprenticeship. It seems that the entrapment of the oppressed working classes in lives without hope is to be passed down from one generation to the next.

There are touches of Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Otto as he crumbles in the face of his own failures. He is a slave at work who attempts to be a slave master at home, obsessing over trivia. Shaeffer’s deadpan style finds comedy in the character’s absurd pedantry without losing sight of the tragedy in his plight; his escape to a fantasy world as the pilot of a model glider is strangely touching. Francolini suggests that Martha could be made of sterner stuff, but she is just as downtrodden as Otto when she performs her household and conjugal duties, without questioning; her fawning over a Swedish royal wedding on television allows Kroetz to illustrate the power of the social hierarchy which underpins capitalism.

Zora’s production navigates the play’s many awkward turns confidently, its boldest sequence coming towards the end of the first act. Otto’s pent up frustration explodes in a fit of rage which sees him smashing everything in the flat across the floor; then, slowly and methodically, he and Martha clear up the mess. The anger simmering beneath their calmness and total silence is almost deafening.

The short second act feels anticlimactic and adds little to a drama that had already run its course. In 2022, the human screwdriver would have been replaced by a machine, Martha would be a joint breadwinner and the bored Ludwig would be preoccupied with computer games and social media. Beyond such details, Tom Fool prompts the question as to whether working class lives have much changed.

Performance date: 16 March 2022

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