Something must appeal to Oxford about early twentieth century German serial killers. Normal, a play about Peter Kurten, the Düsseldorf Ripper,was showing at the BT, and this Monday Fritz Lang’s film M, which may have been inspired by the same man,was on at the Magdalen auditorium. Perhaps it’s just the time of term – the well-known pre-fifth-week-blues serial killing urge.
Their crimes were of a similar stature but, unlike Jack, the Düsseldorf Ripper got found out, tried, and executed. Normal dramatises the relationship between Kurten and his lawyer Justus Wehner, who naively believes, “Sane people don’t want destruction. Sane people don’t murder” – to win the case Wehner sets out to prove to the judge and jury that Kurten is insane. Cue cat-and-mouse scenes in which Kurten manipulates Wehner and shatters his innocently bourgeois attitude to life.
The play itself is no masterpiece. Although the main action is set in 1930, Normal begins with Wehner reminiscing after the Second World War: the result is an excessive amount of explanation, coupled with some trite and explicit moralising about what normal Germans did under the Third Reich. But the cast act well. Alex Shavick gets across the controlled and yet terrifying slippage of Wehner’s world view, and his crisp accent suits the role. Emily Troup is convincing as former-prostitute-turned-homely-wife Frau Kurten; her blonde hair and frumpy costume make her look German, too. Misha Pinnington, who plays Peter Kurten, does well but is not ultimately convincing in a male part; a curious sexual tension develops between Kurten and Wehner, which is not borne out by the script and rather undermines the sense of macho competition.
A notable aspect of this production is the set-up of the BT: there are four banks of seats, creating an effect much like being in the round. The Studio, so often cramped, seems cavernous. Many plays could usefully imitate this arrangement and Sami Ibrahim’s direction of his actors in it. But, while technically impressive, this set-up seems a strange choice for a play involving so few characters and which relies on a sense of claustrophobia, especially in the scenes between Kurten and Wehner.
This production of Normal rises far above most of the nonsense to which the BT is home, but, hampered by the decision to cross-cast Kurten and increase the spaciousness of the Studio, it fails to approach the standards of the best of Oxford drama. Frankly, it is rather normal.