Audiences think a great deal faster than many directors imagine. The dry humor driving Alastair Beaton’s crisp new translation of Max Frisch’s 1958 drama “Biedermann und die Brandstifter” — better known as “The Fire-Raisers” and in this version called “The Arsonists” — allows even slow-witted auds to figure out the central characters’ mixed motives before they do. In order to sustain tension and auds’ attention, therefore, the production has to keep moving. But despite the efforts of a strong cast, Ramin Gray’s overly deliberate, one-pace-fits-all direction fatally lacks momentum.
Arsonists are causing havoc in an unnamed town. Successful businessman Biedermann (Will Keen) — his factory makes hair-restorer — reluctantly entertains a seemingly guileless but manipulative stranger (Paul Chahidi).
Confronting his hosts’ sense of middle-class guilt head-on, the stranger moves in with Biedermann and his wife (Jacqueline Defferary). He’s then joined by a friend (Benedict Cumberbatch), who fills the attic with cans of gasoline. But it would be prejudiced to accuse these men of being arsonists, wouldn’t it?
Frisch’s satire is a smart choice for the Royal Court. Complacency in the face of creeping political threat is everywhere. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to spot contemporary parallels of terrorists living and working within a community that ignores the issue. Blessedly, Frisch’s writing is a long way from earnest social realism, the preferred but often dreary mode for dramatists in pursuit of “issues.”
Anthony Ward’s designs — a chic, modernist glass box house with sheer white walls — neatly emphasizes the Biedermanns’ status, and the characters sport contemporary clothes. Gray’s production is studiedly neutral in its presentation until late in the proceedings when a doctor of philosophy recanting his position as an arsonist is presented as a Muslim.
Frisch’s best trick was his use of a chorus of firemen who comment upon the action. Beaton’s translation makes them either officiously dim and amusingly doom-laden, and, tightly choreographed in witty patterns by Hofesh Schechter, they win the lion’s share of laughs, especially in the splendid opening sequence.
Keen, who joined the production when original lead Jasper Britton pulled out, exhibits remarkable ease in the role. Dripping disdain and carrying himself with smug self-satisfaction, he wears Biedermann’s power confidently, making his intermittent bouts of rage both plausible and engaging.
He’s matched by a beautifully insidious turn from Cumberbatch as Eisenring, the second, more senior arsonist. As he proved on screen in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” Cumberbatch has a strong talent for smiling while portraying a villain. Here, too, his shamelessly bright-eyed behavior neatly contradicts his malign intent.
There are nice supporting perfs from Zawe Ashton as the put-upon maid and Defferary as Biedermann’s suspicious wife.
“The Arsonists” runs in rep with most of the same cast performing in Dominic Cooke’s stronger production of “Rhinoceros.” Frisch’s play has fewer surprises and fresh things to say, but it has a serious point to make in what should be an accelerating sense of inevitability. Gray initially ignites the fire but as the evening grows enervating, you wind up wondering: Where is the heat?