Adapting a magical realist, unreliably-narrated German-language story for a one man show on the English stage is no mean feat. This production of The Tin Drum by the Berliner Ensemble succeeds in capturing the mania of its source material thanks to a ruthlessly effective slimming down of Günter Grass’ lengthy tome by writer-director Oliver Reese, and an absolutely barnstorming performance from powerhouse Nico Holonics.
At the occasion of his receiving of tin drum for his third birthday, Oskar recognises the world for the depraved mess that it is and decides to never grow up. Permanently frozen at 94cm, Oskar recounts a surreal upbringing in the free city of Danzig as the National Socialist regime rises and falls in the background. Reese’s production fixates upon Oskar’s Oedipal trauma, with a dead mother, ambiguous father figures, and a psychosexual development irrevocably disturbed by the appearance of the tin drum – a juvenile surrogate for sexuality, symbolic of the repressive militarism that imposed itself upon the German speaking world at the time. The play is nothing less than the psychology of a war child, with the enigmatic symbol of the drum appearing, multiplying, being destroyed and reappearing throughout Oskar’s disturbia.
Holonics playing Oskar adds a new dimension to his unreliable narrator. Does the fact that he is always very visually an adult disprove his assertion he stopped growing at three years false? Should his camp, snarling, mischievous performance therefore be taken with an even greater bucketload of salt? This offers the prospect of all the magical scenarios being imaginary – and Oskar’s wild tale being a distorted product of the selective memory of the post-war German psyche. Oskar determinately forging his own identity in his narrative is a comment on the ability of the individual to self-actualise even when society is at its most repressively conformist.
Holonics performance is mesmerising: he shrieks, shouts and froths at the mouth, all the while running around in a whirl of energy. He smiles menacingly, using his teeth and tongue to grimace and gurgle his way through his mimicry. He is ever on the brink of mania, but brings it back with a psychopath’s resolve. Occasional divergence into the crude or obscene run the risk of accusations of the part being overdone – but then that is exactly the point. And Holenics has such an easy, comedic charm that digressions are never not believable.
There are a lot of frames you have to work through to get to Oskar’s story: that of historical retrospect, of the German subtitles, of the single actor playing multiple parts, as well as of his own insanity and unreliability. It is sometimes hard work to keep track of literal translation as well as the complex nuances of Holonics’ performance. But Holonics works to keep the audience engaged, tailoring the play for tonight’s audience by cheekily reading his own subtitles or making momentary off the cuff comments in English.
Daniel Wollenzin’s set is consciously not naturalistic: a raised stage helps project the arena into the realm of imagination. Covered in soil, it is simultaneously a child’s playground, a military training ground and a cemetery. A pit in the middle is at first the cellar of Oskar’s childhood home, but inevitably becomes a grave. It encapsulates an uneasy juxtaposition of the juvenile with the morbid that often characterises this production of a play that does all it can to revel in contradictory and the impossible. But through all its complexities, the story remains right there with you in Holonics’ eminently capable hands.
The Tin Drum is playing at The Coronet until 29 Feb 2020. For more information and tickets, see the Coronet Theatre website.