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Tom Fool

by on 17 March 2022

Reality Is Filthy

Tom Fool

by Franz Xaver Kroetz

Orange Tree Theatre Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond until 16th April

Review by Mark Aspen

Freedom is a much vaunted word, but perhaps one of the most precious freedoms is having the will to determine the course of one’s own life.   Otto Meier, the father of the failing family in Franz Kroetz’s controversial play Tom Fool (originally Mensch Meier), feels trapped in “the system”, but it is arguably a system of his own making.  Kroetz, one of German’s most prolific modern playwrights, maintains that “a dramatist must be tough on his characters”, but in this dissection of the tedium of their working (or not working) lives, it is the characters who are tough on themselves.

The play opens in June 1976 with the Meier family in their cramped Munich flat watching a television broadcast of the wedding of King Carl Gustaf of Sweden to his German bride, Silvia Sommerlaththe.  Or rather Martha, Otto’s wife is watching, enthralled, while he ridicules the proceedings.  Ludwig, their sixteen-year old son is bored.  This little spark of romanticism, undermined by Otto’s cynicism, is all we see to lighten Martha’s otherwise humdrum life.  Ludwig has teenage interests, sleeping, pop tapes, car magazines. 

Otto works on the production line in the BMW plant, screwing components all day long onto the windscreen pillars of the BMW 525.  He is frustrated and resentful of his lot and it is eating away at him.  He has become fretful and penny-pinching, but has one little escape, a love of building and flying radio-controlled model gliders.  However, as he denies himself even this safety-valve, he increasingly takes out his frustration on the pragmatic but care-worn Martha and on Ludwig, whom he accuses of being a layabout.  Ludwig is, but he is demotivated by his father’s instance that his job-seeking should be towards a professional career.  The boy wants an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, but Otto derides the trade.  (Kroetz himself was a bricklayer and obviously knew what a skilled craft it is.)  Thus are sown the seeds of the disintegration of the Meier family.

Kroetz is an unconventional dramatist with a terse style that focusses on prattle, on small-talk, the ad-hoc passage of everyday speech.  He knows how to use silence and the pregnant pause.  This is demanding of an audience and demanding of the actors.  Thus we hear Otto’s miserly accounting, Deutschmark by Deutschmark, of a rare pub meal.   His fretting over his loss at work of his Parker 51 fountain pen, for which he blames his boss and which cost him 28DM, consumes him so much that the thought even interrupts their lovemaking.  Kroetz recreates the minutiae of uneventful lives, peppered with bickering and backbiting.  Were it not to be leavened with hints of humour glimpsed through the cracks in the carping, the script would becomes tedious.   Kroetz acted for short while in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s antitheater and clearly there is an influence here in the sense of foreboding inevitability.  However Fassbinder’s relentless pulsating dialogue is replaced by a progressive building of an overburden of tension. 

The characters’ names are well chosen: Ludwig is hampered by a symbolic deafness; Martha is a biblical provider as the Hausfrau; Otto is the authoritarian autocrat, but here not over a burgeoning empire, but over his own tiny family.  Otto feels that it is only at home that he has any agency.  There is seething resentment that is building in him, which he tries to repress.

When the explosion comes it is with brutal realism, and as Kroetz puts it, “reality is filthy.”  When it is discovered that Ludwig has purloined a 50DM banknote, Otto crushes him with an abject naked humiliation in front of his mother.  Martha is devastated when the boy immediately leaves home, but the damage is overwhelmingly exacerbated by Otto’s subsequent reaction.  His pent-up rage is vented, not directly on Martha, but on their home, in an uncontrolled physical onslaught.   


This violence is quite shocking in the intimate space of the Orange Tree Theatre and destroys most of designer Zoe Hurwitz’s evocative orangey-brown period-perfect set, which has to be rebuilt each performance.

The play is a series of vignettes each scene dissolving into the next, seamlessly achieved by Christopher Nairne’s admirable lighting design.  From time to time a “chapter heading” is projected on the balcony fascia, “The Reckoning”, “Peace and Quiet” and so on as in a Victorian novel.   Much scene-setting is done by sound designer Joe Dines with authentic broadcasts coming from assorted radios and the TV set, authentic in both place and time, but barely distinguishable German, so they are never obtrusive.

Thankfully for the stage crew, the script allows for the actors to clear up after the devastation of Otto’s outburst in a regretful silence that possibly could have lasted almost ten minutes.  The audience are held in the awkwardness of this hiatus and when at the end Martha breaks the silence by saying, “Well, that was a job that needed doing”, the laughter is cathartic.

This and similar gravid gaps in the dialogue call for consummate acting skills and the cast is brilliant in this respect, in body language and, helped by their proximity to the audience, in facial expression, be it the repressed rage firing Otto’s eyes, Martha’s holding back of tears, or Ludwig’s sideways glances that accompany each shrug. 

Moreover, the dialogue of illustrative minutiae, of loaded trivia and quotidian chatter place high demands on the cast.  In the hands of a mediocre cast this play could not work, but this Tom Fool has an outstanding cast, that director Diyan Zora has used to their optimum.  Getting the timing right is in itself crucial to the pace and integrity of the work.

Michael Schaeffer hits the character of Otto hard and accurately.  His portrait is of a man emotionally unravelling, unpredictably veering from defensive to aggressive, vulnerable under a hard shell.  He struts to shore up his own insecurity and crumbles under the weight of remorse, for Otto is a man struggling with his inadequacies whilst trying to assert his authority in the only place he can, at home.  Schaeffer shows us an Otto who cannot assert himself in the workplace, who seethes with bottled-up rage, and when he overacts is swamped with remorse.   We begin to worry that Otto is losing his mental stability, and then we see the pathos of one who has lost what really matters to him.  For all the vanity, bluster and brutishness, then is underneath a man with loyalty and love, now totally buried.  Otto sums up his predicament, “I’d like to climb out of my skin, if I could”.

Martha is the character that it is easiest to sympathise with, patient and dutiful in spite of being used, abused and taken for granted.  Anna Francolini plays Martha as a woman wearied yet accepting of her way of life.  Her heavy footed walk and quiet sighs speak volumes.  When she eventually is pushed too far and leaves Otto, she discovers her own identity, but she cannot truly let go of the man she married. 

The furthest emotion journey is undertaken by Ludwig.  From the browbeaten and derided son, lacking in initiative, when things come to a head he is the one who take as grip of his life and, knowing his limitations, goes on to fulfil his ambition of becoming a craftsman.  Recent RADA graduate Jonah Rzeskiewicz draws a well observed picture of late teenage ennui in his surly taciturnity, but he knows how to portray more in a look that is at the same time subservient and defiant.  Ludwig eventually takes the high ground from his father and then rescues his mother from lonely isolation.

All three characters suffer this penalty of isolation and loneliness, but it is Otto who is unable to redeem it.

Whilst the translation of Kroetz’s play, by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, has quite natural English idioms and Hurwitz implies that it is set in an English industrial town, they measure in metres and Deutschmarks and refer to a Bavarian environment.   It ends up a bit stranded in its setting.

Otto’s resentment originates in the understandable feeling that he is merely a cog in the machine that is the car assembly line.  His job is fastening fourteen screws into a car day after day.  What do you do? he asks himself.  I screw screws.  I have become a human screwdriver.   Indeed nowadays he would have been replaced by a robot.   However, he can see no way out.  But he clearly does have skills.  He can design and build a working glider and can fly it.  He appreciates the smooth-flowing Parker.  Yet, he has convinced himself that he cannot advance in his job or move to something different.  One hopes at the beginning that Martha would give him a good shake. 

The Guardianista hold up this play as addressing the exploitation of capitalism, but although Kroetz had been a member of the German Communist Party, by 1978 when he wrote Tom Fool he had quit active politics.  Tom Fool is a compassionate play; at heart it is more than politics; it about finding the courage to choose one’s own destiny and this is freedom that never should be passed over.

Mark Aspen, March 2022

Photography by The Other Richard

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