Stefan Zweig often set stories within his stories. His novel, Beware of Pity, was published in 1939 but set in the run-up to the First World War. It is tale of the past, memory and regret set in a world about to turn. The entire narrative takes place in the conscience of Anton, a man looking back on the time when, as a young soldier in the Austrian cavalry, he became emotionally entangled with Edith, a wealthy young woman with a condition that left her paralysed. Anton doesn’t realise this at first and his initial attraction to her gives way to a complex mixture of guilt, repulsion, and pity – the latter of which is repeatedly described as a poison, a contaminant.
This 2015 co-production between Complicite and the Schaubuhne Berlin is performed on Anna Fleischle’s fairly minimal stage. There’s a box from which the younger, uniformed Anton emerges, a table, some chairs, a screen, microphones into which the performers speak their lines.
Simon McBurney’s production has a hypnotic quality. While there are a number of Complicite flourishes in the direction it’s the story that propels things. The performers are at once characters and facets, engaged in an act of group narration. Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s eight-hour Great Gatsby retelling, comes to mind in the way the performers inhabit the world of the text. Edith, in her stiff white dress, often resembles an eerie doll, jerky and shrill – distorted in Anton’s memory.
The way in which the surtitles are widely spaced at the side of the Barbican stage leads to some moments of disconnection (not to mention discomfort) but the production takes on a mesmeric quality – a tragic tale tainted further by the bloodshed to come.