Director Simon McBurney walked into the first day of rehearsals for Beware of Pity with no script. He had Stefan Zweig’s 1939 novel of that name, and the task before him was to adapt it into a play with the input of the actors. The catch? The company was Schaubuhne Berlin, and McBurney doesn’t speak German.
But ask him if process was just as collaborative as when working with his own British company, Complicite, and he says, “Even more so, in a sense, because I have to trust them… I constantly asked the actors to help shape the language, so that the best and the most dramatic aspects of Zweig’s language would feel comfortable and work for them as they were speaking. So it’s a constant process of proposition and response, and just listening to the people that I worked with, who were really wonderful.” These included his assistant, James Yeatman, and two German translators, who would adapt McBurney and Yeatman’s English segments.
The novel, about Edith, a paraplegic girl who falls in love with the narrator, Hofmiller, a cavalry officer, has a breathlessness to it, accentuated by the absence of chapter breaks. This was a quality McBurney sought to preserve, because, beyond its narrative drive, he sees it as reflecting the relentlessness of our lives and of history.
He views Zweig’s book partly as a metaphor for how the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s nature – its militarism, nationalism and classism – made the First World War inevitable, and thereby sowed the seeds of World War II. “The disabled girl is in a sense the crippled image of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Hofmiller’s inability to have empathy for her is part of the sort of unconscious growing nationalism or a national psyche,” he says.
He finds such metaphorical implications appealing. “A story that’s extremely superficial is incredibly unsatisfying,” he says, “because it’s not reaching down into the centre of who we are, because we exist on so many different levels… Part of why you make something is you’re constantly trying to understand something about yourself. What other point is there in making work, really? You do your best not to make something which is just a piece of detritus, but you don’t necessarily succeed in that, and so each piece can at least become a way of asking yourself questions, and finding out what it is that you’re doing here and who you are.”
Similarly Hofmiller questions his own motives and actions at every turn in the book, obliging readers to confront how they might behave in similar predicaments. “There has never been a more urgent time for questions of moral responsibility,” says McBurney. “All nations ask themselves searching questions that come up after times of enormous trauma, for example the Second World War.” He points to Britain’s response, creating a national health system and other aspects of a “civilised society”. “Now, of course, there’s a certain sort of complacency, and it’s all been taken apart.”
He suspects this complacency creeps in because societies only tackle deep moral issues when under duress. “These are questions that I’m asking myself, because the older you get, to a certain extent, you the more you become aware of your own inadequacies; the less certain you become. I always thought it was going to be the other way round, and that I would become clearer and more certain, and these things were key to becoming what you might think of as a wise person. It’s quite shocking to discover that the opposite is true!”
Zweig, a Jew, never found that out. Nazism forced him to flee his native Austria, and three years after writing Beware of Pity he committed suicide with his wife in despair at the world.
Beware of Pity: Sydney Festival, Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 23-26.