Pros: Interesting idea and a well-linked narrative.
Cons: Clunky, didactic dialogue and overly complex staging.
The New Diorama Theatre appears out of nowhere. Enveloped by offices, the theatre takes on the funky, modern look of its surrounding buildings. It seemed like the perfect setting for a play about globalisation and the increasingly fluid nature of commerce and culture. Even the audience reflected this sentiment, being of international character themselves.
This theme was emphasised through a motif of maps that appeared in the drawn-out opening scene, which had no obvious connection with the rest of the play. After this slow start, the play began hurtling rather clumsily through its narrative, lurching between continents and story strands that eventually draw together.
The centre of this strange tale is a personified ball of cotton, the ‘Thing’ of the title, who is picked in Africa, made into a t-shirt in China, given to a young footballer in Germany (the accent was Lancashire but I slowly clued up), and eventually recycled by making its way back to Africa where the former cotton farmer picks it up as the t-shirt. The Thing’s journey joins up the stories of an unhappily married young German couple, a struggling cotton farmer in Africa and two Chinese businessmen. On paper these seem like tired clichés and sadly the story never lets the characters step beyond these cultural archetypes, and in parts even becomes offensive in its representation of culture, as well as gender.
From a white guy doing a terrible and terribly hackneyed Chinese accent, to the poor African farmer who resorts to selling scavenged dead men’s clothes, the piece – though all encompassing – stays firmly in the territory of stereotype.
This is also true of its representation of women with its only female character being overtly sexualised and diminished in a wholly unbelievable and distasteful way. Her plotline revolves solely around her sexual frustration, which leads her into all sorts of trouble with a nosy neighbour and an obsessive Chinese businessman. She is underwritten and thinly performed, and seems to be merely an excuse for some attractive nudity.
Perhaps my issue with the writing is partly a result of translation, as there were quite a few moments where the jokes didn’t seem to connect and references seemed a little too masked in layers. Why the setting wasn’t moved from Germany to perhaps London is a bit mystifying as we are left to contend with an Irishman with a Home Counties wife who has a brother from Lancashire. Unnecessarily confusing.
Also falling into this camp is the lengthy scene and costume changes, which inexplicably took place in blackouts. Given the purposefully chaotic nature of the design, it seemed strange not to show the character changes, rather than pretend we couldn’t see what was going on and frequently be plunged into darkness.
Overall, this play is a little disappointing given its promising premise but I feel that it could get somewhere special with tweaking of some untidy staging, some work-shopping of the writing and some interrogation of the play’s potentially provocative elements.
Writer: Philipp Löhle
Translator: Birgit Schreyer Duarte
Director: Tanja Pagnuco
Set and Costume Designer: Martina Trottmann
Booking Until: 1 November 2014
Box Office: 020 7383 9034
Booking Link: http://newdiorama.com/whats-on/das-ding