It’s an odyssey through the first half of the 20th century, an unreliable memoir and a very personal state-of-the-(German) nation allegory – and that’s just Günter Grass’s epic novel. Now Kneehigh Theatre’s powerhouse of creatives stages their collective vision of the tale of Oskar, a man-child who refuses to grow up in “this despicable age”, in a corrupt and ugly world; choosing instead to remain inside the body of a three-year-old – if not the mind – for he’s a transgressive and over-sexed infant.
Armed from this tender age with the first of a succession of tin drums he gets from Jewish toymaker Sigismund Markus, Oskar is a caustic, passionate commentator on the surreal story of his own birth and upbringing in Danzig. It’s played out against the Nazi occupation of the Polish city and accompanying Kristallnacht, during which Markus’s toy shop is destroyed.
Playwright Carl Grose fashions a text and lyrics, including rhyming couplets evoking epic poetry, Brecht/Weill, and rap. Composer/MD Charles Hazelwood worked his ideas with the company of actors and musicians to craft a score for instruments, including “old-school analogue synthesisers and attendant drum pad tech”, played by three versatile onstage musicians and sung through hand-held microphones adding to the raw excitement and intimacy.
The cast of 10 multitalented performers play everything from the chorus to Oskar’s extraordinary puppeteers. For at the heart of the action is a puppet protagonist with a repertoire of moves and expressions that are arresting and eloquent, sometimes chilling, even gross; perhaps doing justice to Gross’s surreal creation of Oskar in a way no human could. So let’s namecheck designer/maker Lyndie Wright, puppet director Sarah Wright and Oskar’s discreet ‘handlers’ and alter egos, Dom Coyote, Bettrys Jones and Wright herself.
As Oskar’s Polish-born mother Agnes Bronksi, Nandi Bhebe is wonderfully complex and conflicted – torn between her cousin and lover Jan and husband Alfred. Damon Daunno brings his eerily beautiful, almost falsetto voice to the role of the heroic partisan Jan. He does, as Oskar asserts, seem to be Oskar’s rightful father, rather than Alfred (convincingly stolid Les Bubb), who aspires only to be a grocer – and a fervent Nazi Party member. Rina Fatania is the powerful, exuberant force of nature that is Anna, Oskar’s grandmother.
Naomi Dawson’s set is a huge ruined building, presaging the fall of Poland, with ladders to a platform above providing a vantage point for goose-stepping (female) Nazi troops. The whole cast effortlessly performs Etta Murfitt’s exhilarating choreography and artistic director Mike Shepherd knits disparate elements together to make a seamless whole, from an uncomfortably appealing puppet devil to a train of tiny figures pulled across the stage on a string over the bodies of those of their number who fall by the wayside. This last is a poignant evocation of the fate of Europe’s Jews and other Nazi victims that presages the plight of today’s refugees. It is typical of the vivid images that illuminate the powerful contemporary resonances of Grass’s strange tale.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Steve Tanner
The Tin Drum runs until Saturday 23 December. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Sat & Wed only). £12-£28. Shoreditch Town Hall, EC1V 9LT. 020 7739 6176. www.shoreditchtownhall.com