Quartet[author-post-rating] (1/5 Stars)

Heiner Muller’s works are not known to be the easiest to comprehend, watch and – I’m sure – work on. Muller is renowned for his complex, dense and poetic works and has often been compared to Samuel Beckett. You do not put on work by either of these playwrights without getting into the depths of the play yourself and working out some sort of meaning, no matter how subjective that meaning may be. Unfortunately this is what Blowfish Theatre seemed to do: their production of Quartet at Brighton Fringe seemed to have no in depth thinking behind it whatsoever and was generally lacking in creativity.

Quartet is Muller’s reflection on Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s about sex, yes, but it’s also about the foundation of society, our relationships with other people, and the question of religion. Two characters, Valmont and Merteuil, inhabit the two-in-one setting ‘drawing room before the French Revolution/air raid shelter after World War III’ and take part in a series of play acting, resulting in death, that is reminiscent of Genet’s The Maids. The two take turns to play various young women Valmont has seduced, or wants to, and this often ends in enactment of the highly sexualised acts of seduction.

Blowfish Theatre seems to believe that debauched language and raunchy actions make a good performance: they definitely don’t. In this era we can hear such talk and see much worse on TV or online; the theatre can offer much more but this performance takes no advantage of this. I’ll admit a play that takes place in two settings simultaneously is a challenge, but it’s a play where the characters are playing – it provides ultimate potential for playful direction, design and overall performance conception. Instead the design is basic – a few set pieces and props scattered here and there – and barely made use of during the performance.

The acting can be described as classical at best and there is hardly any discernible difference between one character and the next, save for a slight costume adjustment. The realisation that this was a game for the characters only came to me when it was referenced in the text. Throughout I found myself willing the performers to actually engage with each other, to offer some idea of the relationship between the characters.

Being spoken at in an overly dramatic manner is never good, but when the text is as dense as Muller’s it risks losing the audience entirely. Not once was there a real change in tempo, and this didn’t help me keep focused on the show. This production has hardly been directed at all save for the actors being told where to stand and at what point to shout their lines. If Muller’s challenging Quartet is to work on our contemporary stage it needs to be stylistically and playfully represented by a highly creative team; the play certainly has excited potentials within it but sadly none of these were realised in Blowfish Theatre’s production.

Quartet is at the Latest Music Bar as part of Brighton Fringe until 21 May. Tickets and further information can be found via the Brighton Festival website.