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Tom Fool – Orange Tree Theatre

Franz Xaver Kroetz’s stunning portrait of the dehumanising psychological effects of work is staged in an emotionally intense revival by Diyan Zora

Jonah Rzeskiewicz and Anna Francolini in Tom Fool

Beneath the surface of the social realist genre churns an implicit discussion about whether radical art is (or should be) informative, confrontational or transcendent. Is the main aim that the audience walks away and urgently demands socio-political reform, and is that possible? Similarly, is representing poverty on stage going to foster vital empathy, or perversely lull predominantly middle-class audiences into thinking they have done their bit purely by thinking about social problems. These questions seem renewed in an era of social media, where raising awareness and recognising injustice is often mistaken for activism itself – rather than, at best, a first step.

Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, written in German in 1978 and translated sensitively by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, portrays the devastating force that money exerts upon a family, playing on the fault lines of intergenerational resentment and patriarchy. Its undeniable anti-capitalist message is never quite didactic, emerging instead through a pervasive tone of discontent – the aching sense that things do not have to be as they are. It uncompromisingly depicts life under capitalism for those it does little to benefit and implicitly spurs its audience into action – though the drama’s disconsolate, desolate air is partly down to the difficulty of resisting such an all-pervading system.

Previously revived at the Bush Theatre in 2007, Tom Fool seems perhaps more apt now as a tale of a squeezed cost of living, and a family it splinters apart. It focuses on the low-key tribulation of a family of three – with a working father, the mother at home, and the late-teen son Ludwig caught between childhood and adulthood, in a lacuna of jobless inertia. Michael Shaeffer’s patriarch, Otto, dominates the stage, his performance commanding and riven with buried shame. It is a turn which anchors the play too, allowing Anna Francolini to give a quieter, yet utterly compelling performance as his put-upon wife, Martha, victimised by him one time too many. She is the play’s devastating emotional heart. Jonah Rzeskiewicz meanwhile plays Ludwig with a youthful uncertainty about his place in the world, and the actions read by his father as idly disrespectful (lying in bed and skulking around the house) seem more like attempts at hiding from the withering paternal glare of disapproval.

Otto encapsulates Kroetz’s main thesis – that capitalism is ultimately dehumanising – while Martha and Ludwig advance supporting hypotheses about the maltreatment of women and the young respectively (both unable to access jobs in a system where work defines worth). Kroetz’s most searing critique is of the dehumanising effects of automation. While left-wing, anti-capitalist writing about automation has always been somewhat conflicted (between the positives of eliminating the need for dangerous, exploitative and inefficient labour, and the negatives of increasing profits for owners while eradicating working class jobs), Kroetz homes in on the human cost above the economics. Automation is not a debate about efficiency or wealth redistribution, but a battle for the soul of the worker. Here, it is not the car industry which has been automated. Instead, the human workers themselves have been reduced to machines, in an Adam Smith-like vision of streamlined ultra-efficiency. Otto, a semi-skilled worker, is in charge of the screws that go into a car door and window. Yet this is not a triumph of specialisation, but a psychologically destructive separation of worker from output.

Though Otto’s job here is specific to German industry – and particularly to the late-20th century too – for Kroetz, I doubt this matters too much. Otto’s work conditions function as a metaphor for capitalist employment as a whole, which he contends is inherently unfulfilling. Kroetz mirrors Otto’s profession in his hobby – building intricate model gliders. They are made according to his vision, and he is responsible for every part. Perhaps this is less efficient, but the connection between effort and output is enriching, even joyous. Interspersed in the play are scenes where Otto works on his glider or embarks on test flights. He narrates his actions, even pretending to be an interviewee on a German radio station – greeting his own aggrandising introduction with a gentle faux-modesty, conceding that everything he knows about glider-making is something he has taught himself. In some versions, especially given his cruel streak, these scenes could be directed to mock Otto – charging him with a narcissistic, delusional streak perhaps. Yet Zora locates in them a private spark of joy. These are the key to sympathising with the play’s difficult lead.

Anna Francolini and Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool

Otto is both a tragic protagonist and a comically absurd creation – penny-pinching to the max and regaling his wife with long-winded anecdotes about the price of a restaurant meal, or the whereabouts of a fountain pen, borrowed by a higher-up at work. On stage, his mania is strangely compelling. To live with, it would be exhausting. Kroetz heavily implies that his obsessions with money come as much from a desire to assert power and authority, as much as from a fear of poverty. Capitalism has infected life absolutely, every moment of generosity fiercely bounded with financial caveats. Out with the family at a pub, the father offers his son another drink. ‘A pint?’ he asks. He is allowed a half and reprimanded for being cheeky – even though a scene later the father is opining about a half’s relatively poor value for money.

Though Otto feels dehumanised by his job, the alternative – not working – carries a profound sense of shame, which manifests in his borderline abusive treatment of his son. Ludwig is caught in a depressive eddy of unemployment, lacking the qualifications and social opportunities to pursue a career which would satisfy his parents. His attempts to become a bricklayer are shouted down by his father, yet Otto is also quick to ridicule his son’s apparent indolence and tells him to ‘go out and earn some money first’, before doing anything enjoyable. Otto is motivated by a powerful resentment, that his son might not have to suffer the way he does, yet this attitude ascribes a moral value to labour itself and reinforces the capitalist system.

The first half, in brief staccato scenes, slowly escalates Otto’s resentment and powerlessness to breaking point. When 50 Marks go missing – stolen by Ludwig to buy a ticket for a rock festival – Otto explodes in rage, strip-searching his son and expelling him from the house when the money is not found. The rage continues to bubble up, now directed at Martha, and, in a heart-stopping scene just before the end of the first half, Otto loses control completely. He deliberately spills some of his beer on the floor, a move rendered shocking for its sheer wastefulness – that Otto would normally condemn. Then he quietly smashes the bottle on the floor. Then he unleashes a burst of pure rage; he upturns the dinner table and a dresser, puts his foot through the television and empties out the pot plants’ soil. Martha watches on, the actions a deliberate attempt to intimidate her, infringing on a space that is implicitly hers. When Otto first pours out his beer, she immediately goes to clear it up; the gendered division of their domestic labour has been clearly established long ago.

The most striking part of Kroetz’s text is the scene that follows. Together, in near-silence, Martha and Otto clean up the mess. It takes at least five minutes, and Diyan Zora brilliantly insists on verisimilitude. The fact that the scene leads into the interval would allow the cleaning to be approximated or cut short – left as a task for stagehands, while the audience pops to the loo. But Zora plays the scene with a powerful realism that wordlessly communicates guilt, blame, apology, fear and even acts as a form of catharsis. For Otto, perhaps it is even that – joining his wife in cleaning up – he is truly able to release the pent-up emotion that caused his violent outburst. Yet it is now too late to save their marriage.

Realism and naturalism are usually about simulation. By evoking what Lyn Gardner describes (in her review of the 2007 production) as the ‘tedious minutiae’ of daily life in a ‘hyper-realistic style’, we gain a different an insight and understanding that we would from the more contrived mechanics of standard plot-drama. Sometimes, ‘real’ plays cut to the heart of the matter by announcing the limits of their reality from the start. Alecky Blythe’s beautiful verbatim play Our Generation (which recently played on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage) begins with a projected acknowledgement of the play’s real dialogue, though character details and names have been changed. There is always a limit of some kind; theatre is not life. Actions happening onstage are not the same as those offstage.

However, there is something about the act of cleaning specifically that pushes against the limits of realist simulation in theatre. Annie Baker’s 2014 play The Flick centred on three cinema employees, whose jobs included the ‘walkthrough’ required after every screening. It is something that happens in theatre too; the auditorium is checked for rubbish (or lost property) and cleaned up. Baker places scenes of cleaning on stage, yet – making no concessions to theatrical brevity – she sets many of these scenes in near-total silence. Baker is faithful to the duration of actual cleaning work and has the actors sweep prop popcorn off the cinema carpet. Yet Baker honours the social awkwardness of her characters too; they may not know what to say to each other, but the work needs to be done. Thus, it plays in silence. At one point, one of the two cleaners does not show up for work, so the other has to do the walkthrough on their own. Realistic as ever, Baker plays the scene entirely without dialogue, while the cleaning ends up taking twice as long.

Cheating this onstage also becomes difficult. An audience might play along if a character pronounced a messy set as pristine, but the play would lose any implicit claims that it was presenting life exactly as things are. Therefore, writing mess into a play – especially mess that needs to be cleaned up – introduces a sudden loss of control. The Orange Tree seats its audience on the same level as the stage, fairly close and in the round. As a result, there are inevitable concessions to safety (and economy). The dresser is presumably fitted with shatterproof Perspex, so its ‘glass’ does not break when overturned. If you squint, you can also see that some of the bone china ornaments are surprisingly robust. While the beer bottle is (presumably) made from safety glass, it shatters into small pieces across the stage and will take far longer to clear up than it does to make the mess.

Ultimately, this compellingly understated scene seems pivotal in Kroetz’s contemplation of the mechanised industrial worker. Technically precise social realist acting is arguably fraught with potential for a similar mechanical reproduction – though embodying a character is obviously far more varied and holistic an act that than bolting the same set of sixteen screws into a Volkswagen’s door. Yet, hewing to an exact, hyper-realistic mode could threaten to reduce the actor to an instrument. Here though, they clean up an unpredictable mess, in a way that cannot be mechanically reproduced – requiring a heightened responsiveness and adaptability. The actor is not a mechanical part of an industrialised process, their physical actions not preordained or choreographed with quite the same exactness. There is a higher form of realism in its randomness.

Anna Francolini, Jonah Rzeskiewicz and Michael Shaeffer in Tom Fool

It is also a scene which defiantly, though silently, asserts the value of Martha’s work – puncturing Otto’s self-constructed mythos of himself as the family’s sole provider. In his view, he is the worker of the family, but seeing the effort expended at such length in clearing up his mess powerfully demonstrates that housework is a form of labour. When the room is finally returned to a semblance of normal tidiness, Martha flatly remarks that ‘that needed doing.’ Kroetz lends her a subtle power and decency in this grimly comic punchline, yet it also speaks to an internalised set of domestic and marital obligations. It is a terrible indictment of this family, and society, that her default reaction is simply to start cleaning up her husband’s mess.

Otto’s character is a synthesis of many archetypal tragic flaws. He is proud and hubristic – even ceremoniously placing a paper crown atop his head – cruel and dominating to his family, and quick to anger. Yet, unlike traditional tragic tyrants, he lacks the social standing to make his outbursts more than implosive, harming his closest loved ones – but above all himself. This seems epitomised by his final act when he trashes the flat; he snaps the wing off his beloved glider. A lot of his anger is really aimed inwards. The mother and son bond, finding ways to support each other in the second half, yet Otto never really recovers.

At stake in Otto is the humanity that he seems to lack – which Kroetz squarely blames on oppressive social forces, though without neutralising the much-deserved scorn accorded him by Martha when she walks out. This humanity has been utterly crushed out of him by his work. Kroetz even ironically titles a short scene in which Otto tries and fails to masturbate ‘Being Human’. Even sex has been tainted by its association with money. Otto solicits a prostitute but finds he is physically unable to go through with it, so he asks for his money back. His request is refused. Kroetz’s main critique appears to be that something natural and human has been perverted, rather than engaging in any more detail about the social causes and labour of sex work. Instead, it registers as a sin committed – in weakness – against the family, for which capitalism is ultimately to blame.

The play ends – like many dramas of its genre – without any particular resolution for action, though with the slightest glimpse of hope. ‘He’s got to do the same as us. Learn’, Martha says, in the play’s final line. It lands both as a fitting inward reflection on the family’s situation and a profound diagnosis of a society in stagnation. It also defers the issue of solving social problems from the artificial world of the play to the real world outside of it; we too have to learn, fashioning a happier ending through improved conditions and social reform. Thus, Tom Fool inclines towards the grimmer, bleaker end of social realism, which attempts to weaponize audience discomfort as a tool of social change. Its effectiveness as a genre is up for debate, but this staging is undeniably a profoundly affecting drama, its characters aching with life.

Tom Fool

Written by Franz Xaver Kroetz, Translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, Directed by Diyan Zora, Design by Zoë Hurwitz, Dramaturg Jennifer Bakst, Lighting Design by Christopher Nairne, Sound Design by Joe Dines, Movement Direction by Chris Evans, Intimacy Coordination by David Thackeray, Casting Direction by Christopher Worrall, Voice Coaching by Emma Woodvine, Costume Supervision by Rebecca Carpenter, Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hunscott, Assistant Stage Manager Eavan Gribbin, Starring Anna Francolini, Jonah Rzeskiewicz, Michael Shaeffer
Production Photographs by Richard Davenport
Reviewed 6th April 2022

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