Winston Churchill’s famous expression, “It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…” could accurately be applied to the subject of The Kaspar Hauser Experiment at the The Space, Isle of Dogs and on tour.
A big, brave, bold production
Kaspar Hauser (1812 -1833) was a German youth who appeared on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 claiming to have previously been held prisoner in a darkened cell. He carried a letter from an anonymous author addressed to Captain von Wessenig of the cavalry regiment. The writer claimed that he had been given charge of the boy after his birth and had taught him how to read and write and instructed him in Christianity and that Kaspar now wanted to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps and join the cavalry. Another note, allegedly from his mother, gave this information and his name. Analysis of the documents have shown them to be by the same hand and Kapsar probably wrote them both himself.
He was in good health, although he insisted on a diet of just bread and water, and was able to walk easily, but his intellectual state was the subject of controversy and he was obsessed with horses. Initially he was imprisoned as vagrant. Mayor Binder spent time with him and found a few more details and rumours soon emerged that he came from aristocratic parentage, while others proclaimed him to be a fraud.
His case was investigated by Paul Johann Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach, president of the Bavarian court of appeals who passed him to the care of Friedrich Daumer, a teacher, who received public donations for his upkeep. He discovered the boy’s talent for drawing which is taken up in the play. Following a mysterious cut to his forehead - probably self-inflicted - he was moved to the house of a local official, Johann Biberbach who found him to be a persistent liar. An incident with a pistol led to his being transferred to another keeper, Baron von Tucher, who noted the boy’s vanity and spite; his "horrendous mendacity" and "art of dissimulation".
Needless to say, his stay with the Baron was short-lived and finally Lord Stanhope, took charge of the boy. After a while he housed him with the schoolmaster Johann Georg Meyer as he was usually dealing with parliamentary affairs in England and did not wish to take the boy with him. Although he made great efforts to find out more about Hauser he ultimately came to doubt his credibility, while Feuerbach proclaimed the boy to be “a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed". Hauser’s ultimate death from a stab wound to his left breast was surrounded in predictable mystery.
It’s a story that loses none of its complexity in the writing by Florence Brady, Adam Davies, Henry McGrath & Charles Sandford nor in the solid performances of the Animikii Team of Graham Butler, Rhianna Compton, Adam Davies (actor/director), Henry McGrath and Charles Sandford. Daumer, Stanhope, and Meyer all feature in this investigation into Hauser along with another character, Clara, the wife of a politician, who is intrigued by Kaspar’s captivating personality. In turn, rather like a trial, they question Hauser and while they are initially in control, he soon learns the art of interrogation and has each of them in the dock, questioning their motives.
Elements of Brecht’s epic theatre abound in the style of this work. We are spoken to directly and asked to rise in the presence of the prince and perform a drum roll. Songs and music composed by Charles Sandford, accompany many moments, often in an ecclesiastical and medieval-sounding style that highlights the Christian elements to Hauser’s background. Narration intersperses the dialogue and chalk boards have the names of the scenes written on them.
There’s a lot going on throughout this work and the spacious floor of the Grade II listed Romanesque-style former church, dating form 1856, allows for plenty of energetic movement in a suitably period building that easily accommodates and suits the many interesting items in Jessica Staton’s set.
It’s a big, brave, bold production but the intricacies of the story combined with the theatrical style are not always conducive to clarity of understanding. It’s easy to become lost in some of the diversions and towards the end of act two there is an element of uncertainty as to where it should end. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable theatrical experience for which the team are to be commended.