The production is the event in “Fireface,” an admittedly arresting slice of dysfunctional family life that concludes a six-week international season in the Royal Court’s flexible studio theater upstairs. The play isn’t a surprise, even if the extremes of violence that it embraces sometimes are. But even by the Court’s own exalted standards, the vitality of director Dominic Cooke’s production seems to reinvent one of London’s most exciting and elastic theater spaces anew. (Cooke’s own production of Christopher Shinn’s “Other People” was a sellout in the same auditorium earlier this year.) Turning the rooftop theater into a mixture of lecture hall and rumpus room, Cooke and his ingenious designer Ultz stage the play’s brief action around, over and even underneath the audience. The invigorating result is to leave one questioning where the staging will go next even as German dramatist Marius von Mayerburg’s bleak vision, as filtered through Maja Zade’s translation, is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Von Mayerburg is writer-in-residence and dramaturg at the Schaubuhne in Berlin, where the appetite for this sort of (literally) inflammatory theater seems fairly insatiable. Imagine Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” tethered to the blasted moral landscape of the late Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” and you have some idea of the unsettling universe that “Fireface” inhabits.
Those less transfixed by images of adolescent self-immolation may take the scripted scenario with a pinch of salt, but there’s no escaping the intensity of Cooke’s delivery of the play or of a terrific quintet of actors, several of whom clearly deserve ancillary credit as gymnasts.
The chief acrobat is Michael Mallon’s Kurt, the “fireface” of the title and the sort of teenager who spends his time making bombs at the time in life when some of us immersed ourselves in musical theater. (His preferred targets are schools and churches.) Rarely standing when he can crouch or leap or do a backward flip, Kurt seems to be everywhere at once in a performance from the baby-faced Mallon that is at once a prodigious physical feat and an eventually explosive study in moral blankness. Firmly committed to putting out “weapons, not feelers,” Kurt is closing himself off from his family, with the exception of sister Olga (Lyndsey Marshal), to whom Kurt’s attraction is somewhat more than fraternal. What’s more, the two share a malaise: “You’re sick,” Kurt tells his sister. “Just like me.”
While Kurt smashes the place up, his parents look on in varying degrees of bemusement, as if they had trained at the side of Celia Weston’s Mom in Broadway’s current “True West.” Ian Gelder’s Father is first to question what’s happening around him, later articulating “the reign of terror in our four walls.” And it’s to Gillian Hanna’s credit that one laughs with — not at — the comic obliviousness of Mother, a woman marking time by washing herself in public until her delinquent children leave a less-than-happy home. Later, Hanna deftly shifts gears, her good cheer giving way to panic in preparation for a climactic atrocity that (thankfully) takes place in complete darkness — the same psychological realm from which such an action springs.
Complicating matters is Paul (Mel Raido, a far more genial presence here than he was as Jesus in the misbegotten London premiere of “Corpus Christi”), Olga’s occasional boyfriend, who moves from family outsider to something approaching Mahatma Gandhi as the parents’ own children increasingly run amok. “I’ll glue us together,” says Kurt of his sister and him, explicating a bond that will be severed neither by boyfriend nor bomb. Whether the play illuminates brutality or merely revels in it remains open for debate, but there’s no doubt that its director’s career is alive and well and ticking, with this production another fine addition to a resume that looks ready to explode.