German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 1978 play Mensch Meier charts the breakdown of a working-class family through the accretion of minutiae so mundane that drying paint would appear to offer a more dramatic spectacle.
Clare Lizzimore’s Citizens’ Theatre production, unveiled to great applause under the title Tom Fool in Glasgow last November, proves instead that the most ordinary of existences can be compelling when given this degree of forensic scrutiny.
The play lays bare the lives of Liam Brennan’s BMW factory worker Otto Meier, Meg Fraser’s passive housewife Martha, and their teenage son Ludwig (Richard Madden) through a series of short, staccato scenes that are performed with such intense naturalism that the drama shades into the surreal.
Designer Paul Burgess reinforces the impression that soap opera is here colliding with the avant garde. His open-plan set squeezes all the rooms of the Meiers’ tiny flat, each decorated with an authentic touch of late-1970s kitsch, onto the small Bush stage. The effect is vaguely comic, but it powerfully conveys just how confined are the family’s lives.
Yet despite the play’s narrow focus, it gives a vivid sense of the era’s social upheavals, from mass unemployment to the early stirrings of feminism among working-class women. Lizzimore’s production puts this across brilliantly thanks to perfectly judged performances from her cast.
Brennan conveys Otto’s inarticulate yearning and rage, while Madden captures Ludwig’s sullen rebellion and Fraser movingly suggests her character’s hesitant first steps towards self-determination. Together they show that beneath the banal domestic surface of this 1970s household, society’s tectonic plates were irreversibly shifting.