Foreplay at the King’s Head Theatre
Foreplay is an incongruous title for a play about the 20th century’s German intellectual scene. Deliberately avoiding any pre-show snooping, and being an enormous fan of most things smutty, it must be said that the first 20 minutes leave you a little cold and more than a little confused. However, this production gathers momentum to become something really quite interesting and is definitely worth a look.
The story revolves around the German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, presented as a nervously pompous academic, nestled safe in the haven of good reputation. His dutiful wife Gretel addresses his vast hoards of fan mail, struggling to suppress the intellect she cast aside to focus on her husband’s work. Hannah Arendt joins Adorno as a leading scholar on the work of the late Walter Benjamin, a literary critic, broadcaster, and essay writer. All is calm, until the arrival of a sinisterly anonymous letter from a woman signing herself only as Felicitas and requesting their presence at a dinner party.
Carl Djerassi’s script is tight and clever, though perhaps a little too much for its own good: the opening scenes offer little in the way of explanation, and the audience aren’t eased into the drama. It’s a production that rewards you for paying attention and would benefit from a second viewing. Felicitas’ dinner party reveals a struggling PhD student desperate for recognition, and holding the keys to a briefcase of erotic correspondence between Benjamin and an unknown woman. There is much story-telling, mixed narrative, unanswered questions.
There were echoes here of late-night round table Agatha Christie novels: all plot and intrigue and betrayal. It is reminiscent of Moira Buffini’s Dinner, which also takes the normally relaxed atmosphere of a social setting and turns this upside down. Director Jake Murray seems to sense there’s real scope for heightened tension earlier in Foreplay, though it’s overlooked for just a little too long at the start.
After the interval, as often happens, the shift is noticeable. The audience sits up. Suddenly, the atmosphere is charged: Ana-Sofia Londono’s set design makes perfect sense. There’s something wonderfully eerie about rows and rows of books with their spines facing the wall. What looks like an impressive collection of literature could, in fact, hold anything on its shelves. Simultaneously a tutor’s study and psychiatrist’s office, the stage buzzes with secrets, hidden meanings, parched letters whose recipients may well be long dead.
Andrew P Stephen’s Adorno marks the academic’s fall from certainty to confusion well, and his distress is palpable in the closing acts. Jilly Bond effectively conveys the vulnerability of his wife, an older woman reliving her youth, while Judi Scott’s Hannah holds the stage with world-weary pity for Lesley Harcourt’s Felicitas: well-played as a cross between the obsessed teacher in Notes on a Scandal and the unhinged other woman in Fatal Attraction.
There are some stellar lines – a young woman’s distinction between the erotic and the depraved: “Kinky is using a feather, perverse is using the whole chicken” – but on the whole this is a slippery, overly fragmented production, which twitches just a little too often for comfort.
Foreplay is at the King’s Head Theatre until 31st May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.