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Playwright Werner Schwab was just 35 when he died from what must have been quite a drinking spree after a New Year’s Eve party in 1994. It’s maybe uncomfortably ironic that the one of the last plays he penned was titled “Dead At Last – No More Air” but then if uncomfortable is what you’re looking for, Just A Must’s English language premiere of Schwab’s play is your kind of show.
All the tropes are there – a play within a play to keep everything wonderfully meta, scatological and sexual images, social classes not behaving as they should – so far, so ticking the box of academic interest.
There’s a semblance of a plot in which an arrogant director takes on a fat and aging playwright’s work with a host of similarly pretentious actors, only for them to be replaced by old age pensioners from a nearby home – but it doesn’t really matter. There are many, many lines of dialogue between all of this happening and many of them quite delightfully incomprehensible. I say delightfully because it’s clear from the dialogue that Schwab longed to be part of the grand tradition of surrealism that hails back back to the likes of Alfred Jarry and his seminal work King Ubu, and in Dead At Last he certainly does his best to continue the lineage of nonsense at any possible opportunity.
All the tropes are there – a play within a play to keep everything wonderfully meta, scatological and sexual images, social classes not behaving as they should – so far, so ticking the box of academic interest. However this is surely the problem with Just A Must’s production; whilst the actors clearly relish their ridiculous roles, from an audience point of view there isn’t much else to take from the performance – save a feeling of intellectual inspection.
Perhaps that’s enough to take from a play that so clearly doesn’t want anyone to enjoy the experience too much. The actors put on and take off wigs as they please, the cleaner, a character touted as a leader for the new world old age pensioner order, enters in one scene wearing an inflatable dress, the playwright, bullied by all of the other actors, quite visibly wets himself on stage. The cast go along with the absurdity gleefully, but clearer signs of Director Vanda Butkovic and Designer Simon Donger interpreting Schwab’s play from a greater creative context might have given Dead At Last more of an edge, rather than reading the text at face value. The cast throughout the production, for example, generally use the multiple airbeds on stage as chairs or sofas. Eventually they do form part of a funny visual expression of death, but it takes until the final act for them to become anything more than stage furniture.
When Jarry’s King Ubu premiered in Paris, a riot broke out at the end of the performance, the play itself outlawed from the stage for its seemingly abhorrent concept. Sadly for all of its eccentricities and anti-theatre roots Dead At Last, or the English language version anyway, would raise at best an intrigued eyebrow rather than a pitchfork – a workshop in a form not seen often in theatres today, but not a masterclass.