Originally a novel by German writer Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum became an Oscar-winning film and now transfers to the stage in this surreal, imaginative and strangely compelling new adaptation.
Young Oskar (aged just three) doesn’t like what he sees of the adult world and decides he doesn’t want to grow up. He achieves his wish when after throwing himself down a flight of stairs his injuries mean that his body will never develop. As the years pass he holds on to his favourite toy, a tin drum which he beats repeatedly and which comes to symbolize his rage at the human folly and corruption he encounters on all sides. He’s also armed with a piercing scream that can shatter glass (it’s a spectacular moment in the production when this is first demonstrated). On stage he takes the form of a puppet, which highlights his vulnerability and innocence while also giving him a disturbingly alien and sinister quality.
Oskar lives on the border between Poland and Germany with his mother Agnes, his father Alfred and his ‘uncle’ Jan (who may well be his real father), the three a mixture of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. Alfred is well-meaning but also weak, naïve and casually racist. He’s recruited by ‘the Order’, a brutal nationalist party led by a malevolent female leader known as the Black Witch (the parallels with Hitler and the rise of the Nazis are clear). Oskar rejects his father’s views and is drawn more to the decency and humanity of his uncle. But while Oskar has a strong sense of goodness and justice there’s a hard edged intolerance to his moral righteousness, and as the violence around him increases and tragedies befall those closest to him his traumatic emotional journey makes him less judgemental and more accepting of the diversity of human behavior. As a key song in the play has it, ‘Viva la complexity’.
The production has an episodic approach, telling Oskar’s story through a series of short, rapidly delivered scenes. There’s little conventional dialogue but plenty of songs, poetry, physical action and knockabout comedy. If we sometimes struggle to make sense of it all that’s partly the point. Like Oskar we’re confronted with a chaotic, unstable world, one that has echoes not only of 1930s Europe but also of our own time, with its regional wars, ethnic tensions and burgeoning far right movements.
It’s appropriate that writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd receive equal billing in the programme, as it’s clear that all three have made a major contribution to a remarkable theatrical spectacle. Credit also to the musicians (onstage throughout) and to the company of highly accomplished actors, who all take on multiple roles and demonstrate extraordinary dexterity and energy as they sing, dance, leap in the air, shout and occasionally fall over. The Tin Drum confirms the Everyman’s reputation for bold, adventurous drama and fully deserved the standing ovation it received at the end of what was certainly a memorable evening.
**** Takes you on a strange, exhilarating ride – the audience loved it
The Tin Drum continues at the Everyman, Liverpool until Saturday 14 October.