Extravagantly told by one of UK’s most respected directors Simon McBurney – accompanied by actors from the famed Schaubühne Berlin – Beware of Pity is a critically-acclaimed stage adaptation that opened this year’s edition of Singapore International Festival of Arts at the Esplanade Theatre on Thursday, 16 May 2019.
Adapted from the only novel by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig – one of the world’s most famous writers in the early 20th century – Beware of Pity tells an emotionally-gripping story about the treacherous nature of pity.
The accomplished actors of the Schaubühne Berlin create a nuanced, vivid account of Anton Hofmiller during his younger years – narrated by the present Hofmiller (Christoph Gawenda). Then a young, Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer, Hofmiller (Laurenz Laufenberg) is invited to Baron Kekesfalva’s (Moritz Gottwald) castle, where he successfully manages to entertain with one amusing anecdote after another. Inebriated by his accomplishment, he asks Edith (Marie Burchard) – the host’s daughter – for a dance, but Edith blanches.
Hofmiller recognises he has committed a faux pas, but it is only when the girl’s cousin, Ilona (Eva Meckbach), explains that Edith is paralysed does he realise the extent of his offence and flees the castle. The following morning, he sends flowers, and Edith reciprocates with an invitation to tea. Soon, Hofmiller is a daily guest at the castle, oblivious to the mentally fragile Edith falling desperately in love with him.
When Hofmiller learns of the truth, he proposes to marry Edith. However, once Edith realises that this was only a result of pity, her initial delight mutates into a despairing rage, and Hofmiller spirals into a destructive romance with Edith.
Set against the backdrop of during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution at the turn of the First World War, this shrewd psychological melodrama about misguided compassion reaches its inevitable end in the tragic conclusion of the couple’s relationship.
While the play was performed in German with English subtitles – on a small screen at either side of the stage – the play on its own was engrossing enough for me to not flicker my focus between the act and the subtitles. The cast members were so emotive and passionate throughout the play that they transcended language barriers and conveyed their emotions directly to the audience – the subtitles eventually felt like a secondary aid rather than a necessity.
Beware of Pity sees a story within a story, in the form of retelling past experiences. The first-person perspective in the narrative is crucial, as the narrator is tasked with making the audience see and think as Hofmiller does – the audience has to experience the play as Hofmiller to better connect with the other cast.
The narrative in the play was executed perfectly – Gawenda narrated Hofmiller’s thoughts as they are being expressed by Laufenberg during the play. He did not skimp on the most trivial of thoughts either – notably during the scenes when Hofmiller admitted to himself that he was a novice liar, and when he compared his shadow to that of Dr Condor’s.
Another highlight of the play is its innovative use of props. The glass cabinet took on various forms throughout the play – including a case for a mummified uniform and a train carriage – while a mobile table was used to propel the disabled Edith across the stage. A dress identical to Edith’s was also used to personify a heart-rending puppet of herself.
Microphone stands circled the centre of the stage to portray the “inner voices” that were booming inside Hofmiller’s head. The overlapping voices that got louder with each layer were brilliantly executed – with each voice timed perfectly alongside his inner turmoil.
It was obvious that much thought was put into the play’s mise en scène, with the microphone stands also sometimes used for the cast members to do voiceovers for one another.
Overall, Beware of Pity acted precisely as the title suggests – a warning to the audience of the often-problematic nature of charity and goodwill. However, the play ends with a juxtaposition as the audience subconsciously end up showing pity towards Hofmiller by the end of the play.
Visuals by Gianmarco Bresadola.