Time Zone Theatre has brought two productions to this year’s Fringe, both adaptations, and with some common ground. One is Oscar Wilde’s Salome; the other is Werther’s Sorrows, a modern version of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, the 1774 novel with which Goethe (then only twenty-five years old) electrified the German literary world. The overweening theme of Time Zone’s Fringe season, then, is passion: specifically, destructive passion – the passion that drives Salome to demand the head of John the Baptist, and Werther, famously, to a suicide so dramatic that it was reputed to have sparked numerous copycats during the period of Wertherfieber (‘Werther fever’) that ensued.
Although Goethe’s novel is written in the form of letters and diary entries, it is clearly fertile ground for a stage adaptation. The author of this new version, Duncan Gates, relocates the action from rural Hesse to London: his Werther is a gap-year visitor, just through with his A-levels – or more probably, with the Abitur – and eager to find, if not himself, then at least a source of passion that will sustain him forever or consume him utterly. Gates, a graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, gives us a Werther cast adrift, apparently in contact with friends at home through Facebook, but in the end, a wanderer.
The Facebook sequence employs a voiceover, as Werther’s friends comment on his move to London. The device is clever, but dramatically its function is uncertain: this play’s chief difficulty is that it is slow to begin. A pleasantly grotesque prologue sees a yuppie couple touring the flat where Werther died. It seems that he might still be hanging around, and the woman, as paranormally sensitive as she is neurotic, soon makes a protesting exit. This scene deserves its place, setting up the blend of humour and horror that obtains throughout the play, but the pacing falters during the episodes that follow, picking up again as we move into the main action of the drama.
Werther’s demure Charlotte becomes a modern-day “Charlie” in Gates’s version. Played by Katharina Sellner, she is still a cipher – we can never quite work out whether she cares for him, or cares not at all. Sellner thoroughly inhabits her role and is a pleasure to watch: her account of her mother’s death from cervical cancer featured some of the most moving acting I have seen at this year’s Fringe. Jolyon Westhorpe, as Werther, has the most challenging role, but convincingly portrays a disarrayed mind, in thrall to the inimitable morbid beauty of self-destruction.
Pamela Schermann’s vibrant direction features marked expressionist elements, combined with a flair for dramatizing raw emotion. This is a stylish show, richly effective in its visuals and benefiting from the combined talents of several accomplished actors – it needs no background in Werther, functioning well as a stand-alone piece. It will clearly be of interest to Germanists, but it would be a shame if audiences were restricted by the relative unfamiliarity of the original novel to a modern readership: Werther’s Sorrows will intrigue those who have read The Sorrows of Young Werther, and please many who have not.
**** – 4/5 Stars
Werther’s Sorrows is playing at Zoo Southside until 27th August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.