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Request Programme - A Very German Tragedy

Friends said she was a loner, the obituaries might read when talking
about the sole woman onstage in Request Programme, German writer Franz
Xaver Kroetz's bleakly funny study of loneliness known in its original
German as Wunschkonzert. She just kept herself to herself and didn't
bother anyone. As Kroetz's 1973 play arrives in Edinburgh in a
production by ad hoc Swedish company, SIRIS Original Theatre, given how
much those words could apply to a twenty-first society in which more
people now live alone than ever before, according to a recent survey by
the Institute for Public Policy Research, Request Programme might just
look like prophecy.

Following one night in the life of a middle-aged woman who comes home
from work to a private place where she can indulge in her personal
little rituals while listening to her favourite radio show, Request
Programme too is a fascinating insight into what goes on behind closed
doors where the woman has effectively built herself a psychic fortress
from the big bad world outside. Crucially, outside of what plays on the
radio, not a word is spoken.

“It's such a special play,” Request Programme's director Hedvig
Claesson says. “and so strange. There are no words spoken, but you feel
this woman is talking all the time, talking in your head.”

Originally produced in Sweden by Riksteatern/Drama, the country's
National Touring Theatre, Sweden, Claesson's production toured around
sixty real-life apartments in the country before doing similar at the
Nordwind Festival in Berlin. In Edinburgh, Claesson hopes to recapture
that sense of up close and personal intimacy by playing it in the
ornate surroundings of the Inlingual language school in the city's west
end. For actress Cecilia Nilsson, such close proximity to the audience
leaves her necessarily exposed.

“There is no place to hide,” she says. “It's fascinating to play her,
because it's so different from playing alongside other characters.
Because I'm on my own, I have to fight giving too much of a
performance, because you're always wanting to do something, when this
play is in fact almost like a meditation.”

Nilsson first heard about Request Programme in the 1970s, and although
her sister saw a production of it in Stockholm in 1975, she didn't see
it until 1981.

“At the time it made me very angry,” she says. “Why? I'm not sure, but
it deals with matters that are very existential. This woman is a person
who's developed a few special habits. She lives very secluded and has
isolated herself from the world. She doesn't have a computer and
doesn't socialise at all. She's gone into her own little world and has
this very strong depression. She's become afraid of life, but she's
also very much like you or me. All these feelings she has go inside
her.”

Request Programme received its British premiere in Edinburgh in 1974 at
the Traverse Theatre, then
still based in its old Grassmarket home, in a production featuring
veteran Scottish actress Kay Gallie. The play tapped into a form of
super-realism that was Kroetz's raison d'etre of short scenes depicting
seemingly mundane and often economically disenfranchised lives barely
getting by.

Request Programme reappeared at the Traverse in 1986 in a new
production featuring Eileen Nicholas, who had appeared at the Traverse
the year before in another Kroetz play, Through The Leaves. In the
latter play, Nicholas played opposite Ken Stott in a production by
incoming Traverse director Jenny Killick.

Request Programme was subsequently produced in New York and other
countries, including a version of the play by Lee Breuer's Mabou Mines
company.

Other Kroetz plays seen in Scotland include Home Worker, again at the
Traverse in 1974, a small production of Stallerhoff, and, more recently
at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, a studio production of Tom Fool
that transferred to the Bush Theatre in London with Liam Brennan and
Meg Fraser in the cast.

Kroetz's work first started appearing in the UK at a time when he and
other German writers, including Manfred Karge, whose solo piece Man To
Man was performed so powerfully by Tilda Swinton at the Traverse in
1987, were coming to the fore. Kroetz's work in particular, which so
often dealt with characters unused to having a voice, may well have
been a subconscious influence on Scottish writers such as David
Harrower, whose spare use of language in his debut play Knives in Hens
isn't so far removed from Kroetz. It's telling too that Knives in Hens
has received multiple productions in Germany.

More recent Edinburgh connections with Request Programme include a 2008
production by Katie Mitchell in Koln and Cologne which featured video
projections from world renowned audio-visual company 59 Productions.
This year in Cork and Galway, the Corcadorca company presented a
site-specific version of the play featuring Edinburgh-based Irish
actress Eileen Walsh, who first appeared with Corcadorca in the
original production of Enda Walsh's breakthrough play, Disco Pigs, that
took Edinburgh by storm in 1997.

Despite the obvious practical advantages of doing a one-person play
without words, allowing it to travel abroad easier, for such a serious
piece of contemporary playwriting to receive such attention remains
rare, especially after almost forty years when the vogue for German
writers of Kroetz's post 1968 generation appears to have past.
Especially considering the fact that sixty-five year-old
Kroetz, who originally trained as an actor and who became a celebrity
in the late 1980s after playing a corrupt gossip columnist in a glossy
TV soap opera, gave up playwriting in 2006, declaring it a spent force.

Rather than make it a 1970s period piece, Claesson's take on Request
Programme is made even more pertinent by setting the piece in the here
and now of things, intimations of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and all.

“The play talks about loneliness in a way that you can really feel,”
Claesson says. “I really love all of this woman's little rituals, the
small things that are funny, and which we all do and become obsessed
by. On one level they're funny, but they also speak so much about how
we're all alone.”

Request Programme, Pleasance@Inlingual School, 40 Shandwick Place,
August 4-27, 7.30-8.40pm weekdays, 4-5.10pm and 6-7.10pm Saturdays and
Sundays
www.pleasance.co.uk

The Herald, August 11th 2011

ends

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