Like modern day Gunpowder plotters, Schmitz and Eisenring sneak barrels of combustible fuel – in their case petrol rather than gunpowder – into houses before lighting the blue touch paper and retiring to watch the display. It has been happening all over town. Biedermann is quite sure it will not happen to him, but then he receives a visitor… Matthew Amer was at the incendiary first night of The Arsonists.
Complacency, keeping up appearances, a lack of cynicism, the worry about perception; these are the real villains at the heart of Alistair Beaton’s new translation of Max Frisch’s satire.
It is hard to dislike the two arsonists when there is very little deception to what they do. It is even more difficult when Paul Chahidi’s former wrestler Schmitz is a baby-faced, puppy-eyed apologetic arsonist. Benedict Cumberbatch’s highly strung, class angered Eisenring is slightly more ominous, though as friendly as a tame fox.
Will Keen’s Biedermann is a tightly wound businessman who thinks himself above the risk of being a victim of arson; he would not be silly enough to fall for their tricks. Yet he finds himself inviting two strangers into his bright white, sophisticated home, feeding them, but never wanting to admit the truth, that under his nose, in his very own abode, are the harbingers of his downfall. The play’s central tenet is one that could apply throughout history as factions rise within nations.
The action is presided over by an all-seeing fire brigade, a chorus commenting and warning, ever present, yet unable to entirely stop the atrocities. Their presence, following the week’s events in Warwickshire, is a stark reminder that behind the absurdity of events on stage, the production is nothing if not a reflection of the world at large.
The Arsonists plays in rep with Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Downstairs until 15 December.