Tonight was the first preview of Katie Mitchell's new production Pains of Youth at the National. Love it or hate it- with Katie there's rarely middle ground, her work is always an event and she's one of the few directors working in British theatre who consciously re invents text. She is a supreme auteur, the arrowhead steering both Ferdinand Bruckner's play, written in 1928, and Martin Crimp's translation into a strange, eerie, semi conscious reality. It's no surprise, given her experimental track record, that several people walked out before the interval.
The play itself is perfect material. Set in inter war Vienna, six bored young medical students explore their desires in a complicated entangled game of power, attraction and submission. It's a sharp display, with carefully sequenced scene changes, suggesting a reductive view of emotional connection and a clear, forensic rather than erotic, focus on the role sex plays in constructing and controlling adult relationships.
The whole piece is dimly lit and continually underscored by a creepy, paranoid percussive score, which highlights the menace and fear of every movement, gesture or knock at the door.
So where is the brilliance? Well in all honestly it's in the acting - wiry, intimate and precisely observed. It's untheatrical in a conventional sense, but breathtaking in its behavioural authenticity. Geoff Streatfield is wonderful as the predatory Freder, directed to play most of his action upstage, adding to his alluring sense of confidence and ability to break the rules for his own means. He's brilliantly supported by Leo Bill, as the weak willed Petrell and Lydia Wilson as the self-assured and curious Desiree.
At curtain there was a luke warm reaction from the audience who seemed unsure whether the attention to detail had bored, challenged or fascinated them. It'll be interesting to see what the critics think after press night next week.