Little known in Britain, but legendary in his native Switzerland, director Luc Bondy brings Arthur Schnitzler’s erotic, tragic romance to the cold, grey streets of Waterloo, filling the Young Vic with sexual tension and unfilled desire.
Set in fin-de-siècle, politically decaying Austria against a backdrop of undeserved wealth, manipulation and opulence, Sweet Nothings, adapted from Schnitzler’s play Liebelei by David Harrower, centres on the lives of four young lovers and friends, whose sexual entanglements result in complications and consequences beyond their years and experience.
Engaged in an affair with a married woman, Fritz (Tom Hughes), a privileged and almost naively passionate playboy, is also toying with the affections of Christine (Kate Burdette), a beautiful and, to the outside world, untouched woman who is seeking release from the ties of her working class upbringing, claustrophobic father and overbearing neighbour (played with touching intensity by Hayley Carmichael). Frustrated by the restraints on her life, Christine seeks to be extraordinary in a world where men want nothing but the prosaic and uncomplicated from their women and to wish otherwise is to play with fire.
Fritz is armed with booze and the equally intoxicating influence of his best friend, the unashamedly immoral and misogynistic Theodore (Jack Laskey) and his part time lover and good time girl Mizi (Natalie Dormer). Dangerously aware of their attraction, the men are ready to monopolise the girls’ adoration, taking what they want without ever needing to ask. The party soldiers on until a silently furious and humiliated husband arrives unannounced, bringing Fritz and Theodore’s revelry to a distinctly unpleasant end.
Another of Schnitzler’s plays, Traumnovelle (Dream Story), inspired Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, and a similar erotic, slightly sinister undertone is apparent in Sweet Nothings. From the confused affections of Fritz – which verge from selfish to well meaning – and the arrogant and demanding sexual actions of Theodore, to the excited awakening in Christine and the sexual knowingness of tiger Mizi, sex, and laterally love, are the driving forces behind all actions, with ultimately tragic results.
The acting is both startling and moving, with the young cast unafraid to collide violently with one another in passion and aggression. At one point the fairly minimalist set is transformed by the characters into a scene of decadence, chaos and wasted oblivion, with broken glass, scattered cake and discarded bed linen littering the room.
With a tragic end that is inevitable from the very beginning, Schnitzler’s play is a feast of decadence for the ears and the eyes, with Bondy’s direction so rich in detail you cannot help but find yourself swept away by the quartet’s messed up love story.