According to the blurb on the back of the playscript for Dead At Last, At Last No More Air, the playwright Werner Schwab was “the undisputed star of German-speaking theatre” at the time of his early death in 1994. His fascination with language and theatre is clearly evident in this confrontational play, but piecing together a coherent message – even a coherent sentence – during this English language premiere is like trying to do a jigsaw made of gerbils. Whether something was lost in the translation, or the play is just as impenetrable in its original German, the effect was that of being lectured in a foreign language for an hour and a half.
The characters in the play are lazily drawn automatons who take turns to spout Schwab’s sprawling and labyrinthine philosophies implausibly at each other as they sit undynamically about in a theatre together. Rather than being real, discrete people, they present like pontificating pages of a walking, talking thesis, simply vocal vehicles for Schwab’s rambling, esoteric thoughts.
The dialogue might be more engaging (and comprehensible) if the actors invested themselves more deeply in their lines, but the text seems to hover somewhere above the action, while the actors below it simply slot themselves into Schwab’s two-dimensional stereotypes: the camp gay man; the sexy/sex-object woman; the arrogant writer; the tortured-artist director. Although there are occasional flickers of something real happening between the actors, it is rare that the words being spoken really feel like they belong to the speaking character, or have any immediate effect upon the others.
The play is meta-theatrical, but the line between reality and theatre is not clearly delineated, and only adds another level of impenetrability to the experience. Important exposition is lost in the dense soup of the dialogue, and the characters’ relationships with each other are mostly very weakly formed. Thus, the audience is left drowning in words with nothing to cling onto, feeling as if the play would have been better written as an essay that could be chewed over and re-read than shoehorned into a shaky narrative and performed as a piece of drama.
Dead At Last, At Last No More Air is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until 17 May. For more information and tickets, see the Camden People’s Theatre website.