October 01, 2008

Attempts on Her Life


by Robyn Archer

State Theatre Company
Of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
September 2., 2008

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

By any measure, the life and achievements of Margerete Schutte Lihotsky were extraordinary. Born in Vienna at the beginning of one century and living to see the arrival of the next, her life spanned the history of modernism. An architect when women were not visible in the profession she was a notable part of the revolution in building and design that went, as Tom Wolfe once said, from Bauhaus to our house. Certainly it did if your house happened to be in Germany in 1926, where Lihotsky’s celebrated “Frankfurt kitchen,” with its compact efficiency, opened up new vistas for affordable, intelligent domestic style.

Expert in all matters Weimar and for thirty years a leading light in the performance of its music, Robyn Archer, with Architektin (German for female architect) has turned to writing for the theatre. Her play is an ambitious and fascinating account of a career which linked Austrian and German art and culture, confronted the rise of Hitler and enthusiastically embraced the idealism and creative energy of the Soviet new society. Margarete Schutte Lihotsky’s achievements are larger than life and, reaching the age of 103, longer than most.
If her exploits were pitched to a Hollywood producer – architektin in a man’s world, captured by and imprisoned by the Nazis, brushes with Stalin’s repression – her story would get the green light.

But, as is often the case with biopics and docudramas, a fascinating subject does not guarantee a satisfactory narrative, something Archer herself obliquely acknowledges when she indicates in the program notes that “in order to tell a good story I have had to fictionalize …personal events, characters and encounters.” This is fine as an idea, but it seems that Archer herself is not comfortable with it and, as if to mitigate her inventions, she has delved even deeper into authenticating, but literally diverting, detail.

The result for Adam Cook and his cast is that Margerete Schutte Lihotsky’s story is a long and winding one – full of incident and against a dramatic canvas, but more digressive than engrossing. There are reports that the text was considerably shortened during rehearsal week and again during the season, but by that late stage, structural problems are hard to mend.

Having said that there is much to admire about this production. The lively newness of the period is captured in yet another of Mary Moore’s intelligent designs. Using the central motif of a draughting table, it is as open and clean-lined as the aesthetic of the time, the costumes are stylish in blacks and greys and the linking graphics and timeline details on the large stage screen complete the effect. Gropius, Mies and Margarete would approve. Geoff Cobham’s lighting is again delectable and assured and Stuart Day’s astute sound, weaves numerous contemporary compositions (including Eisler and Weill) into the aural mix.

The performances are also excellent. As the younger Margarete, Ksenja Logos attractively presents the determination of a young woman who seems so sure of her next step that inner conflict is foreign to her. It is for Helen Morse, as the older Margarete, to look back and wonder at her single-mindedness and lack of doubt. As for all the actors though, there is much to be explained and argued and, often, exposition overwhelms the emotion of a scene. Nick Pelomis does well as Willy, Lihotsky’s long-suffering husband, and in a sometimes overwhelming variety of supporting roles as architects, parents, siblings, political spokespersons, artists and faceless tormentors – Michael Habib, Antje Guenther, Craig Behenna and Duncan Graham contribute strongly.

To his credit Adam Cook has been chancing his arm this season – with Geordie Brookman’s inventive version of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life (and, coming up soon, a new reading of Ibsen’s Ghosts) A new play from an exceptional South Australian artist, Architektin may not live up to its own grand designs but it is a welcome and intriguing prototype.

“Attempts on her life” The Adelaide Review, No.344, October, 2008, p.27.

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