Trueman and the Arsonists

Writer Simon Stephens has taken Max Frisch’s 1953 Biedermann und die Brandstifter, variously translated as The Fireraisers or The Arsonists and given it a heightened absurdist interpretation with songs in a production at the Roundhouse by Represent Theatre.

A heightened absurdist interpretation with songs

The central themes remain the same, though the Germanic context is changed. This version contrasts the gullibility and arrogance of the well-to-do Smith (Tommy Oldroyd) with the machinations and determination of Trueman (Adam Owers), a man far below him in social standing,

Trueman appears at Smith’s doorstep in something akin to a prisoner’s outfit. This might be for no other reason than that it is fun to dress up and can reinforce a claim to absurdity, but it might be a clever device for showing that Smith’s imminent foolishness has been staring him in the face all the time. Trueman appears to be genuinely in need of a place to stay and is the sort of chap Smith believes he could get on with, as he has with other vagrants he’s accommodated in the past. His wife, Bobsy, (Nadine Ivy Barr) goes along with this.

After a some haggling, Trueman offers him the attic for the night, but Smith stays on and takes advantage of the hospitality by inviting Molly (Angela Jones) to move in with him. Smith accepts this and even when the pair start stockpiling barrels of petrol in the loft he is unable or unwilling to make the connection with the arson attacks that have been taking place around the city. Worse still, he becomes embroiled in the planning by helping to measure the detonating fuse and provide the couple with matches, making himself an accessory. Thus, no matter how much the evidence points to the contrary, Smith cannot bring himself to admit an error of judgment and stop believing that Trueman is a decent chap.

Frisch’s original deployed the firefighters in the style of a Greek chorus. Now we have a motley collection of characters resembling trendy individuals from the 1970s. As a group they belt out the chorus music and lyrics of Chris Thorpe with guitarist Aaron Douglas as lead vocalist and Lucy Yates on drums and additional effects. It’s all very entertaining but exists rather as an aside to the thrust of the play’s message.

Director Abigail Graham has clearly had a lot of fun staging this version and misses few opportunities for eccentricity. What’s lacking is the depth of writing and performance to draw us into the situation and convince us that we should see ourselves in Smith’s position and reflect on what we would have done in his circumstances or the the extent to which we are blind to the truth that surrounds us in so many areas.

Given the times in which we live that surely should not be difficult. The stockpiling of oil and related climate issues along with the plight of refugees are really not far removed from the core of Frisch’s play if you really want to update it.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Fires keep starting. All across the city, arsonists worm their way into respectable people’s homes only to burn them all down. It’s a plague. And we don’t know why.

But Trueman is no fool. He can spot an arsonist from a mile away. These two gentlemen with troubled pasts who turn up on his doorstep asking for a spare room can’t be arsonists. They’re too polite. Like him. Everybody is far too respectable to act on their suspicions. Even when they fill his attic with barrels of petrol and ask him to help measure the fuse.

In a new version by Simon Stephens,  with songs by Chris Thorpe,Trueman and the Arsonists explores how moral lethargy can invite evil in – even encouraging you to give it a warm blanket and a nice dinner.

This is an amoral morality play. It’s also got songs in it.

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