Burning down the house


Four puffs and a piano. As everyone who’s ever watched Jonathan Ross’ talkshow on the BBC knows: they may be silly, and sing out of tune, at least they make you smile. The four guys and their piano in Biedermann en de brandstichters (Max Frisch’s Fire raisers, or Firebugs) at the Brussels’ Royal Flemish Theatre, unfortunately, mostly made me cringe.

This play is not going to have a happy ending. That much you know from the start, looking at the burned down remnants of  Biedermann’s house, on stage at the KVS. From the moment the hair lotion-manufacturer allows two strangers into his house, you know what the end will be: Schmitz and Eisenring will set fire to the place.

After Singhet ende weset vro en Revue, director Ruud Gielens (who also works for theatre company Union Suspecte) now opts for one of the classics from the repertoire: Biedermann en de brandstichters, from Swiss author and playwright Max Frisch (1911-1991). This dark comedy about cowardice and opportunism was written as a radio play first, but later on Frisch adapted it for the stage.

The radio play had an ‘author’, addressing the audience. In the theatre version you get a Greek tragedy-style ‘chorus’ of firemen. They interrupt the story and offer an external view. Gielens makes them sing. He asked Jan Van Outryve (Muziektheater Transparant) to write music for four guys and a piano. Why not? But unfortunately, Van Outryve’s music and the singing doesn’t click with the rest of the action. The guys are dead serious, and every time they open their mouths it’s as if the play comes to a halt.

Start-stop, start-stop. It added to the overall feeling I got from this. Gielens’ Biedermann is shifting too much in tone. You get it with the actors too. It sometimes feels as if they have received their orders from different directors. And for Willy Thomas, who plays Biedermann really well, it looks as if the only solution left, is to turn more and more into an overstrung version of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

Amidst all this, I did sympathise with the maid. With big eyes she is looking at all the chaos, wondering what is going on. As if she is not really sure if she belongs here, or not.  

(photo credit: Bart Grietens)


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