03 February 2014

MIDSUMMA: The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Dirty Pretty Theatre and Theatre Works
31 January 2014
Theatre Works
to 8 February

If The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is glimpse at how filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder saw women, well, let's just say he was a dick. But Dirty Pretty Theatre have re-imangined Fassbinder's 1972 cult-favourite film, transporting the translated film script to now and bringing a new level of camp and understanding (and shoe porn) to what's often known as "that German lesbian S&M film".

Petra Van Kant (Luisa Hastings Edge) is a mid-30s successful fashion designer who's recently divorced, again, and is living in an expensive apartment with her assistant Marlene (Joanne Trentini), who silently dotes on Petra and is rewarded with atrocious treatment, the worse the better. When friend Sidonie (Nikki Shields) introduces Petra to 20-something Karin (Anna May Samson), Petra is instantly besotted and offers to create a modelling career for the very beautiful young woman – if she moves into Petra's flat and bed. And when Petra's at her lowest, Gabi, her teenage daughter (Fantine Banulski), and Valerie, her mother (Uschi Felix), come to celebrate Petra's birthday.

It's a ridiculous story about picture-perfect women who act on every whim of emotion, change their empty little minds in seconds, care only for personal satisfaction, and value themselves based on their sexual attractiveness and the power it gives them.

But this production isn't a copy of the film.

Director Gary Abrahams has turned up the camp and the melodrama to off-the-scale levels, but pulled away far enough to find a focus and distance that highlights the extremity while creating a genuine and disconcerting emotional connection to the characters.

There's little to connect to in the script – Fassbinder's women are as dimensional as a ripped out page of a fashion mag – but it's amazing what happens when the insubstantial is put into the hands of very good actors. For all their histrionics and external selfishness, the cast find a truth and honesty in their characters. By bringing them to the stage with so much more than was written – and never playing them as clowns – it's easier to laugh, or despair, at their emptiness because we know there's a world of hurt and frustration behind the behaviour.

But Abrahams has not gone so far as asking us to feel sorry for the rich beautiful white women, just to see them as more than the world they inhabit and to see this story as a reflection of how women and this world are often still seen.

And the stage creation of this world is something indeed. Romanie Harper's design – which creates even more space in Theatre Works by running diagonally – nods to the film and creates a locked-in apartment for Petra, where objects are chosen for their beauty/value rather than if they belong.

But it's Chloe Greeves's costumes that define the world of high fashion, endless money and mirror-fed narcissism. There were times when the frocks made me feel very fat and old, but I gently slapped myself for thinking so and went back to drooling at the unattainable pretty.

From Sidone's off-white, wide legged, bottom-defining pants with an emerald green silk shirt with three-quarter sleeves and peek of breast, to the ribboned-laced back of Karin's floral cocktail dress, to Valerie's over-jewed handbag and body-hiding sweeps of velvet, the detail of this design makes this world real – cheap knock-offs would have made it a joke. As all tower in glorious and very expensive shoes that force them to turn sideways as they step into the sunken living room, it's a world of accepted, welcome and chosen pain and restriction.

And who care's if you get to wear those shoes! Sure, I was wearing mock-Birk slip ons that make walking a breeze, but I felt the toe-bleeding, arch-aching, misshapen-foot joy of every step Petra and her women took.

Photo by Sarah Walker

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