Hen & Chickens Theatre, London – until 17 November 2018
The Fire Raisers was written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1948, reportedly as a response to the Communist takeover in Prague – though the play never specifically references that event. Instead, it takes as its setting the home of respected middle-class businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, whose town has recently been targeted by serial arsonists. Biedermann is one of the first to speak out against the attacks – but when two fire raisers talk their way into his home, making absolutely no secret of their intention to burn it down, he flat-out refuses to acknowledge the truth that’s right in front of his eyes.
Described by Frisch as a “lesson without teaching”, the allegorical play can be seen as a comment on any number of 20th or 21st century political events that have seen even the most respectable citizens turn a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing. It’s left to the audience, however, to decide specifically where and how we apply that message. This new production by Theatre of Heaven and Hell is similarly non-specific – although the inclusion of original songs by director Michael Ward does give the play at times an unnecessarily didactic feel, particularly during a rather heavy-handed and superfluous final number.
The cast of actor-musicians generally manage the comedic chaos well, with strong central performances in particular from Darren Ruston as Biedermann, and Marius Clements and Jake W Francis as the two would-be arsonists. Ruston’s Biedermann is very much the everyman, despite his many flaws, and even as we laugh at his stubborn stupidity, we can understand – if not condone – why he behaves as he does. When he turns to the audience and demands to know what we would have done in his shoes, it’s a particularly uncomfortable moment for everyone.
Similarly, we can’t help but be charmed by Clements and Francis, even though we know full well they’re up to no good. Each time they openly admit they’re plotting to burn down Biedermann’s house, we laugh along with both them and their victim because it seems so ludicrous; who would confess such a thing if they really meant to do it? Watching them, we’re reminded of those leaders who use their charisma and the appearance of buffoonery to slip under the radar (in keeping with the spirit of the play, I won’t name names – but I think we can all think of a couple of examples…).
At once an enjoyable absurdist comedy and a cautionary political parable, The Fire Raisers is a fun show with a bit of an edge. There are times when the production feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to get its point across, rather than allowing Frisch’s script to speak for itself – but that grumble aside the play has lots to say and, for the most part, says it well.
The Fire Raisers is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th November.
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