Sandwiched in the middle of the 90s season at Styx is the Anthony Neilson’s 1991 play, a horrifying tale based on the Düsseldorf Ripper Peter Kurten’s crimes in the late 1920s. In Emma Baggott’s minimalist production, Grace Smart’s functional set serves as the perfect landscape in which the audience can sit, jury-like, focusing on both Neilson’s provocative dialogue and the emerging psychological battle between the central characters.
Whilst Neilson’s work is known for its controversial content, his construction of language; its rhythm, pace and conflict, give productions the opportunity born to shock and to captivate. Baggott recognises this stylistic quality of the text, really exploring its impact on the audience, and in the process proves that one does not have to bear witness to a torrent of gratuitous acts in order to have a response to it. She plays with the see-saw nature of the text, using the space between the dialogue to impose the horror upon the audience by means of the contrasting feelings of the characters. We are appalled by Kurten’s relish, whilst gaining a real sense of defence lawyer, Justus Wehner’s discomfort, even during the horrifying acts occurring at the end of the piece. What is most clever about the journey these characters take is that we seldom feel sympathy for Kurten, yet are heartbroken by the gradual breaking down of Wehner.
The cast inhabit their roles with a real awareness of the conflict within their situation. Richard Ede’s portrayal of the “Ripper” jumps from composed, well dressed intellectual to aggressive, seething animal with such ferocity that the audience never know where they are with him, let alone the characters sharing his story. His towering presence, coupled with the use of body language and subtle flickers of eye contact and changes in facial expression, perfectly convey the monstrous nature of the character. By contrast, as defence lawyer Wehner, Corey Montague-Sholay is a ball of tension, heartbreaking in his earnest sincerity throughout the play, making his final moments that much more horrifying in their release. These central performances are supported well by Cathy Walker as Kurten’s suffering wife. Her combination of subtlety and intensity convey the vulnerability of the character, whilst acknowledging her background prior to her marriage, conjure the perfect example of the affect her husband had on women.
Ciaran Cunningham’s supports the style of the text excellently; his is a detailed design, picking up on the exchanges of power between the accused and his defence whilst accentuating the moments of tension and release with great impact. From the more abstract lighting around the table, to the subtle representation of what I interpreted as both a cell and a ‘place for the past’, Cunningham’s versatility in such a simple performance space is commendable. This is further supported by Giles Thomas’ aggressive sound which affects the audience both physically, and adds atmosphere and tension to the environment. The combined result is one of sensory insult and narrative highlight.
In an interview in the Telegraph in 2004, Neilson said, “I want people to experience something first and then talk about it afterwards.” It is safe to say this production achieves exactly that and leaves you both fascinated by the plot and horrified by the influence such a monster can have on society.
"Normal" is playing at Styx until Saturday 25th March.