Otto (Michael Shaeffer) is a semi-skilled worker at BMW, frustrated with the mundanity of his position and lack of authority in life. A pedant, he obsesses daily over minor issues such as lost pens, and restaurant charges, whilst meticulously building gliders and dreaming of becoming a world champion in his spare time. His wife, Martha (Anna Francolini), is frustrated at her son’s lack of ambition. She berates him about his unemployment but won’t allow him to learn a trade: she wants him to be a dental technician, or a banker; a job that she can boast to her friends about.
And so Franz Kroetz’s play Tom Fool begins. Written in 1978, it is the final play from one of Germany’s most successful playwrights. It portrays social realism in spades, picking apart a fractured family, all of whom are living with constant disappointment.
The set is intimate: the Orange Tree is famously one of a few London venues which is permanently configured in the round and as a result the 180 capacity audience are in touching distance of the action. On entering the space, the spectator barely registers a bed on stage, with what looks like a body under the cover. A body it is, and once the play begins Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz), the resistant son, is harshly removed by his mother, who then remakes the bed as a sofa. Such is the set. Designer Zoe Hurwitz has carefully constructed the family’s flat so we sit with them, aware of carefully chosen possessions, representative of their social status. Little touches like an empty plate on the dining table hosting left-over toast crusts, family photos and a lone plant on the living room sideboard reiterate their circumstances. Seats and gangways are cleared so that the actors can move on and off stage safely and Otto has to carefully slide sideways when negotiating his exit with his precious glider. There is no room to hide; but none of the performers need to.
This is a powerful and emotional display of human grievance and resentment. So much of the characters’ true feelings are expressed in the unsaid, rather than words themselves; intensely suppressed, until the moment violence suddenly and shockingly erupts and the family flat is destroyed, piece by piece, before our eyes. The resulting menace hangs around for some time until Martha breaks the spell with wry humour, sparking a surprised burst of laughter from the audience. This is a device used throughout the piece, reminding us of the reality of everyday family life: like it or not, high drama is not sustainable and mostly we just need to carry on.
Lighting designer Christopher Nairne effectively picks out moments that need attention, occasionally focusing on the depressed inertia of a character – not easy in so small a space – before returning to the brightly lit drama of a family in clear view. As the piece draws to a close, familial relationships are redrawn and lessons learnt. But it is the abandoned and flawed patriarch Otto who remains paralysed and unenlightened, stuck in an eternal cycle of dysfunctional masculine insecurity. Capitalism put him here and he doesn’t know how to get out.
The Orange Tree Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Long established as a centre for excellence, this production is no exception. The acting displayed by Francolini and Shaeffer in the lead roles is exemplary and the capacity audience last night responded accordingly.
Written by: Frank Xaver Kroetz
Translated by: Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis
Directed by: Diyan Zora
Design by: Zoe Hurwitz
Lighting Design by: Christopher Nairne
Sound Design by: Joe Dines
Dramaturg by: Jennifer Bakst
Tom Fool plays at Orange Tree Theatre until 16 April. Further information and tickets via the below link.