Leonie Kubigsteltig’s revival of Odön von Horváth’s 1932 play Faith, Hope and Charity (translated by Christopher Hampton) is wonderfully timely. The Austro-Hungarian born Horváth observed the poverty of the 1920s and 30s and the horrors of the newly implemented Nazi regime first hand, creating a mix of social commentary and surrealism with a deeply subversive streak. This vicious circle of deprivation and unemployment set in an unnamed state was banned upon its intended premiere in Germany and is still all too recognisable today.
The aesthetic is strikingly modern, even slightly futuristic and it’s something of a jolt when the protagonist, Elisabeth, appears in her 1930s dress. Designer Signe Beckmann creates a forbidding screen of clouded windows (expertly lit by Richard Howell) that slide open to provide the settings for each of the five scenes: the exterior of a mortuary, an office, the street, a love nest and a police station. Modern music plays before the lights abruptly go down and in the vignettes between scenes (particularly aggressively during the love scene), evoking a nightmarish world of manipulated chaos.
In an act of desperation, Elisabeth, a corset saleswoman, offers to sell her body to the Anatomical Institute to raise the 150 marks she needs to get a sales license in order to trade legally. She could go home to her father (and others wonder why she doesn’t), but is determined to earn an independent living. A kindly Dissector (Julien Ball) with a love of animals lends her the sum, only to discover that he has been double-crossed. Following a brief jail sentence, she takes up with a solider (Jude Monk McGowan), which falls apart when her past is revealed.
Rebecca Oldfield is endearingly perky as Elisabeth, steadfast in her optimism that humanity will prevail. Most of the cast play multiple roles, not all of which work, but Penelope McGhie is particularly good as the Magistrate’s Wife, pretending to only sell corsets and garters as a hobby and Paul Bhattacharjee is menacingly leering at the interrogative Police Inspector.
Perhaps what’s most chilling about this play is the matter-of-fact attitude towards death – Elisabeth’s demise is met with mild disappointment; her rescuer wonders why he bothered to try to be heroic and her lover mutters half-heartedly about his bad luck. Horváth works with archetypes and it’s hard to say that any of the characters really transcend their types. Faith hope and charity ought to be linked together, but when lives are dictated by the state, leaving little room for people to find their own way, these virtues become entirely abstract, replaced by blind obedience to a dictatorship. Bureaucratic jargon never changes.