The final main stage production of Dominic Cooke’s first year as Artistic Director at the Royal Court neatly synthesises two of his new regime's most notable features: a new spirit of internationalism, and the much-discussed ambition to ask difficult questions about the theatre’s predominantly white, middle-class, liberal audience. It also continues Cooke’s brilliant use of the main stage to revive some of the Court’s greatest hits from years gone by, apparently selected with an acute eye for the way that their once-unambiguous, impeccably liberal, anti-Nazi meanings have been subtly and ineradicably altered by the intervening years. Ramin Gray’s production of The Arsonists, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, is an electrifying vindication of all these ideas.
Gray and Beaton had already collaborated this year on the dismal King of Hearts at the Hampstead Theatre, and while Gray since redeemed himself with an excellent production of Marius von Meyenberg’s The Ugly One, Beaton’s irritating brand of “political” sub-farce remained a concerning factor. As it turns out, Beaton has delivered a precise, elegant translation of the play, his gift for middle class idiom finding a perfect home in Max Frisch’s script. Similarly, Gray’s apparent enthusiasm for stripped down minimal staging - beautifully realised here in Antony Ward’s two storey room, standing like an island in the middle of an otherwise bare stage - dovetails well with the play’s post-Brechtian meta-theatricality.
The play tells the simple story of how a well-to-do middle class business man (Will Keen) and his wife (Jacqueline Defferary) allow two strangers (Paul Chahidi and Benedict Cumberbatch) into their house during a spate of arson attacks, despite knowing that the invitation of an alien presence into a middle class home is precisely how all the attacks have been committed. The couple, in their desire not to hurt feelings, to be polite and not to think the worst of their guests, allow the sinister duo to go about moving numerous petrol drums into their attic, and to set about wiring them up in order to cause a massive conflagration, while they agonise about what the two men might be up to, and whether they are doing enough to make them welcome.
And it is very funny. Will Keen gives an outstanding performance as the hapless Biedermann, swinging between attempts at upper middle class authority and Basil Fawlty-like paroxysms of farcical despair; Jacqueline Defferary provides excellent support with pitch-perfect essaying of a neurotic, nervy posh wife. Even better are Chahidi and Cumberbatch as the mismatched former-wrestler and former-waiter arsonists. While Chahidi exudes a thuggish menace, it is Cumberbatch’s insouciant, educated manner that really steals the scenes, implying chilling threats in the off-hand manner of someone ordering more wine at Whites.
What is most extraordinary, however, is the apparent intention behind the production. When Frisch’s 1958 play Biedermann und der Brandstifter received its British premiere at the Court four years later, it was understood as a clear parable about the rise of Nazism. Gray and Beaton’s production appears throughout to hint heavily at having re-aimed the play’s questions at the issue of Islamist fundamentalism. I dare say in 1961 it was relatively easy for audiences to accept an, “evil happens when good men do nothing”-type message, which pointed at already historical events that took place overseas. What makes this revival of the Arsonists so vital is the difficulty of the questions it asks. When applied to the question of what middle-class liberals should be doing in the face of Islamist terrorism, suddenly the play's amusing satire of terribly English attempts not to offend start to look and sound a lot more like Martin Amis’s recent “thought experiment” or the paranoid horrors of Melanie Philips’s Londonistan. Fortunately, the play’s arguments necessarily lack any sort of racial dimension - as, of course, should all arguments concerning Islamist terror.
That said, this is nonetheless the most electrifying critique of the British response to the War on Terror yet seen in a theatre. In the final moments of the play, as the chorus - dressed as New York firefighters - delivers its final warning about complacency in the face of terrorism, polystyrene packing chips begin to rain from the skies. The symbolism is absolute and precise: for Ramin Gray, clearly the message of The Arsonists has already been delivered too late, and we are now suffering the consequences of permitting terrorism to grow in our midst.