DISCLAIMER: This play is not for the faint hearted. It is highly disturbing, completely shocking and explores perverse sexual fantasies, but is, all the same, gripping and addictive. Definitely recommended, just not for a first date!
The play follows Justus Wehner, the young lawyer who represented the Düsseldorf Ripper in 1931, as he recalls the intense meetings in which he tried to find evidence that Peter Kürten was insane, as oppose to a cold-blooded killer. Not only does this offer insight into Peter’s twisted mind, but also his ability to stir Justus with unexpected consequences, pushing the lawyer further and further towards the edge and persuading him that “lust has no ethics”.
Ominous music plays as the audience enters, setting the tone for the rest of the play: it has the right balance of subtlety whilst still creating an emotive mood. Although the play is dark, there are moments of refrain in the form of black comedy and old-fashioned skits, breaking up the heavy atmosphere and allowing the audience a moment of respite. An interesting and unusual feature of this production is that the fourth wall convention was broken and the audience were made to feel involved as the role of the jury, with the characters invading our personal space at times. This technique also invited us to become more engaged with the issues of the play and to question some of its central themes: is it possible that we may come to view previously unacceptable behaviour as normal? Is insanity just a societal construction? And do we bear monsters or do we create them?
The claustrophobic tension built between Peter Kürten and his lawyer was masterfully executed, and created an underlying sense of unease that kept us gripped throughout the production. Alex Hollingworth effectively created a disturbing persona for Peter by giving him specific character traits, with his eyes darting from side to side in excitement as he recalled his gruesome past, adding an unpredictable dimension to his personality. Alex’s performance was complimented by Ben Cave who managed to bring out the complexity and hidden depth of Justus Wehner. He connected well with the audience and created an emotionally-charged atmosphere both when speaking in monologue and when interacting with other cast members. Equally, the play could not have been such a success without the supporting role of Frau Kürten and Peter’s female victim, portrayed so thoughtfully by Elle O’Rorke. From the working girl, to the wife, to the victim, Elle’s performance transcended that of an amateur actress.
At times the fast paced dialogue was difficult to follow, but this did not impinge on our understanding, and a slower tempo during the emotionally charged scenes might have been detrimental to the intense atmosphere. The imaginative lighting was one of the main contributors to the play’s over-riding sense of discomfort which came to a head when we were submerged in darkness and left only with the sounds of bestiality after Peter relived his memories of copulating with different animals.
This play is anything but ‘Normal’ and is definitely a must see.
Images by Bryony Blackler