Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play opened in London in its first English translation in 1976. What was then seen as its titillating subject matter (lesbianism — shivers!) and the notoriety of its polymorphous perverse creator (even bigger shivers) gave the New End Theatre in Hampstead (piquantly, an 80-seat equivalent of our Old Fitz!) a huge hit. If that were not enough, they imported French star Delphine Seyrig to add glitter and gravitas to the title role.
So how does the play stack up today, 40 years on, at the other end of a swing of the societal pendulum? In short: wonderfully well. And in this production, from Mophead with Red Line, they’ve continued with casting an exotic star in the lead role, in this instance award-winning New Zealander, Sara Wiseman — and she’s equally spellbinding.
The Bitter Tears... are those virtually every one of us feels at some time in our lives when a love is lost, goes sour or is revealed as sham. For Petra, an already successful dress designer on the cusp of Armani-ness but divorced and lonely, an introduction to a young woman is an unexpected point of no return. She falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with the lissome young thing, Karin (Taylor Ferguson).
Sharing her life and work — although “sharing” isn’t quite the right description for Petra’s attitude towards her hapless employee — is Marlene. And Matilda Ridgway is mesmerising in the role of the silent, abused but adoring amanuensis whose eyes, deportment and ways of walking speak louder than words ever could.
There are three other women in Petra’s life, Sidonie (Eloise Snape), her bestie-frenemy who introduced Karin and who is a simpering assassin whose resemblance to Anna Wintour and a similar demeanour are chilling. Petra’s mother Valerie (Judith Gibson) is another two-faced creature: demanding of her daughter’s attention and money, dismissive and aghast at her behaviour and hilariously shocked to learn she is “in love with a girl”.
And finally, Petra’s teenage daughter, Gabrielle (Mia Morris) who is a gloriously coltish miss whose initially classically sullen and childlike manner metamorphoses into compassionate maturity in the face of her mother’s disintegration.
Throughout his brief and tumultuous career Fassbinder famously explored the extremes of human emotions and relations in his work and life. He left a huge legacy of film – he died at 37 – and this play is one of more than a dozen he wrote between 1965 and 1975. It’s also a movie but the play is more disciplined, succinct and effective. (The screen Petra is most notable for a demonstration of his love of saturated colour and stylised, claustrophobic settings.) He was an energetic homosexual who also married and had great friendships with women – including the German actress Hanna Schygulla who starred in the movie Petra as well as The Marriage of Maria Braun.
His choice of male lovers was more often than not obsessively disastrous as he favoured rough trade and these always lower class men were most frequently chancers on the make. It’s interesting, therefore, that emotional use and abuse are themes of The Bitter Tears... as well as all-consuming and hopeless love and the difficulty of achieving a happy life without truth and honesty.
Director Shane Bosher (most recently highly successful with Cock and The Pride) keeps the production tight and focused and that allows the central figure – Petra – to gradually fall apart to great and painful effect. Sara Wiseman is spectacularly controlled and effective in her descent into self-humiliation and sorrow from a position of ultimate power. Matilda Ridgway’s trajectory is virtually a doppelgänger characterisation and is also captivating. The others of the small company do not let them down and it’s a thrilling and absorbing 90 minutes.
Georgia Hopkins’ elegant, mirrored set design allows much selfie-stuff as well as reflecting parts of the audience and the players in ways that make for psychological nightmares. (Alex Berlage’s lighting is integral to the effect as is Alastair Wallace’s punctuating sound design.) Costume design is by Daniel Learmont Couture and it wryly echoes the tail end of the Swinging ’60s as well as a timeless elegance.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a period piece that is nevertheless recognisably of any moment where people break each other’s hearts and trample each other’s psyches. This production is excellent and the casting is divine. It should be another big hit for Mophead and Red Line. Do see it.
Review by Diana Simmonds.