On the cusp of World War I, a young soldier is invited to Baron Kekesfalva’s castle for a party. After embarrassing himself by asking the Baron’s paralysed daughter to dance, Anton Hofmiller attempts to apologise and sets in motion his entanglement with this sad and unusual family. This joint production between Schaubühne Berlin and Complicité based on the Austrian novel by Stefan Zweig is a dark and arresting examination of the rotting influence of pity on a life and its relationships.
To apologise for his faux pas, Anton (Laurenz Laufenberg) sends Edith Kekesfalva (Marie Burchard) a bouquet of flowers which she replies to with an invitation to tea. Over the course of the play, Anton becomes deeper entrench in the family and their odd life within the castle. Edith falls deeply in love with the soldier while he falls in love with his self-importance at spending time with the pitiful and desperate Kekesfalvas. As his pity intensifies, he makes irreversible decisions about his relationship with the young disabled woman from convincing her of an unattainable cure to promising a marriage that revolts him.
The script, written by director Simon McBurney, co-director James Yeatman, dramaturg Maja Zade, and the ensemble, delves deeply into the darkness of despair, hopelessness, and regret not only through illness but from a sense of waywardness in one’s life. Anton’s story reveals the slippery selfish satisfaction at the heart of some people’s altruistic behaviour which is in turn reflected back from the lives and stories of the Baron Kekesfalva (Robert Beyer), who cheats a woman of her fortune before marrying her as a kind of punishment, and Doctor Condor (Johannes Flaschberger), who married a blind patient of his against the judgement of those around him.
These men distorted the positions of the women around them to paint themselves heroic; martyrs for their lovers’ happiness. But we see the way this distortion infiltrates and hollows their relationships as well as the sense of self and autonomy both of them feel in their connection to each other. Edith senses Anton’s reluctance to her love; she doubts his sincerity and can see the pity he tries to hide from her. This knowledge throws her into violent fits of rage that are as terrifying as they are understandable. Anton’s pity is destructive to her soul, lowering her status below that of human to merely “lame”.
The production team should be commended for the excellency of their detail in designing Beware of Pity. Particularly the lighting and sound design, from Paul Anderson and Pete Malkin respectively, which was beautifully executed with precision. The integration of technology through projections, by Will Duke, and hand-held cameras on stage felt organic and served to emphasis the tone of the text and performances, rather than overwhelming with clever innovation. Malkin’s ambient sound design darkened the atmosphere with subtle tension building through heartbeats, clocks ticking, and rain. He demonstrated a remarkable control of his craft with this sound design.
Furthermore, the set, designed by Anna Fleischle, captured a sense of danger and malaise that threatened to fully topple the narrative. Combined with the human puppetry of actors voicing eachothers’ characters and an overlapped narrator voice, there was a feeling of disease and disorder permeating the production that was arresting. Use of startling images such as Edith’s dress moving of its own accord or Anton soaked in blood were breaths of relief after the suffocating rise of hysterical pressure.
The ensemble were seamless in their movements between characters, tensions, and tones. Especially Laufenberg as Anton who balanced the bumbling intensity of his character very well. Opposite Burchard who threw herself around the stage like a rag doll as Edith, the two were powerful in their unpredictable dynamic.
As a piece that goes to the end of what it means to live succumbed to pity, Beware of Pity is a dark and aching challenge to altruism and compassionate integrity. Anton thinks he is giving Edith love and happiness, but at what cost?
Beware of Pity is running at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from January 23rd – 27th as part of the Sydney Festival.