Georg Kaiser’s 1912 From Morning to Midnight is a fascinating if flawed German Expressionist drama that acts as a link between the better-known work of Wedekind and Brecht. Dennis Kelly’s darkly comic new version does not attempt to fill the gaps in psychological plausibility but shows how this strangely unsettling, episodic play is at heart a satirical fable about the moral bankruptcy of bourgeois capitalism and the soullessness of modern urban society.
The seven scenes take place during the course of one day, as a sort of phantasmagoric journey of discovery. An unnamed bank clerk absconds from his boringly repetitive job with 60,000 crowns driven by the fantastical desire that he will run off with a beautiful client from Florence. When she rejects him, he returns to his family but finds that having broken free of his duties he can no longer abide their pettily ordered domestic routine and goes off in search of ‘a reason for being alive’.
Determined to experience some excitement lacking in his previous dull life, he offers a huge cash prize in a cycling race, then patronises the performers of a cabaret/brothel. When sport and sex fail to give satisfaction, he tries religion in the shape of a Salvation Army meeting, but though he has learned that ‘Money is the most miserable fraud of them all’, redemption proves elusive.
Kaiser’s nightmarish vision of the contemporary city in which citizens behave like automatons at work, then turn into animals when their repressed instincts are released during vicarious entertainment, makes a powerful impression, even if his characterisation seems thin. His caricaturish approach is akin to the work of Otto Dix or George Grosz, in which certain features are exaggerated for effect, but though this grotesque style can feel alienating there is a strong sense of people having lost touch with their essential humanity.
Melly Still’s brilliantly off-kilter staging is full of visual delights, beginning with a bravura bank scene where employees and clients revolve in automaton-like repeated movements, as the hands on a giant clock whizz round. Soutra Gilmour’s imaginatively distorted designs reflect the disorientating mood, aided by Andrzej Goulding’s eye-catching video/projection. Bruno Poet’s lighting is particularly effective in the garish moments when the Clerk enacts his fantasies, while Christopher Shutt’s echoing sound effects and Dave Price’s discordant music also make a strong contribution.
Adam Godley gives an impressively physical performance as the increasingly desperate Clerk, a man in free fall, changing from impassive cashier to manic pleasure-seeker, as well as making the most of his comic exasperation. Gina Bellman is the naively alluring Italian Lady, Dan Milne the sardonically misogynist Bank Manager and Jason Thorpe the smugly guffawing Fat Man, while Éva Magya is the neurotically housebound Mother and Katherine Manners the persistent Salvation Army Girl who dogs the Clerk like a fateful shadow.