According to Wikipedia (that omniscient source of biographical titbits), Anthony Neilson belongs to the “In-Yer-Face” movement in modern theatre. Judging by this latest rendition of his best-known work Normal, such a reputation is well-deserved. Set in the dark and troubled Germany of the early 1930s, this is a play which from its earliest exchanges picks you up, slams you against a wall, and shakes you to your core.
There is no way to escape the horrifying tale that unfolds as the young, impressionable defence lawyer, Justus Wehner, interviews his client Peter Kürten, the sinisterly calm “Düsseldorf Ripper.” Wehner strives to find proof that Kürten is insane, not in order to acquit him but rather because he wants to believe that such depraved evil can only be the fruit of a deranged mind. Misha Pennington is deeply unsettling as the manipulative serial killer, rapist, arsonist Kürten, who from the start tries to mess with Wehner’s principles and values. In one particularly memorable exchange the nature of love is kicked around with Wehner, ably presented by Alex Shavick, half-heartedly providing the idealistic, rom-commy, response to Kürten’s contention that love and brutality go hand in hand.
What should prove to be a further exciting element of this production is the staging choices made by director Sami Ibrahim. The innovatively shaped and sparsely decorated set is guaranteed to draw the audience into the dialogue whilst also creating that sense of claustrophobia and tension which is so crucial to psychological thrillers. It is an effect Ibrahim conjured masterfully in his production of You Maverick! in 2013, where staging the play in the round implicated the audience in the action by removing the fourth wall.
Normal is not a comfortable watch, but whilst we want to avoid the deadened stare of Kürten and block out his sadistic confessions of murderous degeneracy, this production is so compulsive that we are helpless to resist its often terrifying twists and turns. Although the Ripper who is the character on trial, it is his lawyer Wehner who we feel is really being judged. Whether he can withstand his clients taunting and manipulation is a question which keeps the onlookers on tenterhooks from the start, making this production an experience not to be missed.