It is said that youth is wasted on the young. Of the six young people in Ferdinand Bruckner’s 1926 play Pains Of Youth, some are wasting it, some are throwing it away altogether and some are embracing it to devastating effect. But all of them are aware of it; aware that they are in a finite period of their lives, on the cusp of possibilities or disappointments. For some, it is too much to bear.
Bruckner’s play was written between the wars, after a generation of youth had just been destroyed. Perhaps this explains the restlessness, the angst and the selfishness of the medical students in Pains Of Youth; they are living for themselves, aware of their mortality and wanting to get as much out of life as they can before the time is lost.
This is epitomised by Freder (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who gives free reign to his desires and selfishness as he prowls around the boarding house like a raptor, manipulating everyone around him to ensure he gets as much sexual and personal satisfaction as he can. Petrell (Leo Bill) also wants to squeeze every drop of life out of his youth, though he does so in a less menacing manner than Freder. Of the girls, the sexually liberated Desiree (Lydia Wilson) thinks everyone should die at 17 after packing as much pleasure into life as possible, while mother-figure Marie (Laura Elphinstone) seems trapped between desires and choices, unsure what direction her life is taking.
Given the time it was written, the liaisons between the six seem extraordinarily bold. A layer of sexual menace hangs over the action, precipitated by Freder who chooses inhibited maid Lucy (Sian Clifford) as his pet project, effectuating a bizarre transformation on the naive 18 year old, while also trying to exert his influence over uptight Irene (Cara Horgan) and eventually Marie.
Director Katie Mitchell enhances this threatening atmosphere with dim lighting and – in trademark fashion – low, rumbling music which trembles ominously beneath the action. She also highlights the ephemeral nature of the students’ situation by placing the action in the context of a bizarre science experiment. Between scenes the actors – now dressed in sharp black suits rather than their period costumes – appear sporadically to add and remove plastic dust sheets to the props, acting as stage managers from the future who are recreating this particular moment in time for us all to observe.
For some, the science experiment goes wrong, some get exactly what they wanted, while some are left floundering in an emotional and sexual void of their own creation.