Written in 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck deploys an alien probe to rake through the ashes of Germany’s past and find the live coals of fascism in everyday interactions, everyday speech. He doesn’t have to dig deep.
The play – a series of vignettes, really – breaks into three parts.
In the first, a wide-eyed extra-terrestrial Phoebe Zeitgeist (played here by Laura Djanegara as a Monroe-esque starlet) tunes in to the world around her through overheard conversations in a bar.
In the second, she interacts with those same characters, absorbing their gestures, language and the turns of phrase.
Then, in a final act, Phoebe weaponises the vocabulary she has amassed – and reveals her vampire nature.
Writing at a time when Germany was reasserting itself on the world economic stage, Fassbinder was obsessed with its underbelly.
In his short but extraordinarily prolific theatre and film career (he was dead at 37), he fossicked for the remnants of Germany’s descent into Nazism in economic, personal and sexual relationships of its people. He was fascinated by and disgusted with the depredations of the bourgeoisie.
He recorded the harshness of life experienced by the underclass and by migrants (most notably in his film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).
He poked holes in what he saw as a culture of obedience and denialism, and, like his peer Peter Handke, understood at the deepest level, the interplay of language and power. You see much of this in micro in Blood on the Cat’s Neck.
We are far removed from its cultural background, but much of the writing feels fresh half a century on and half a world away. If some vignettes appear remote (a listless gigolo who can’t make love to the same person twice; a dominatrix complaining that “I always feel sick afterward”), others seem very current.
We observe a widow (Deborah Galanos) breaking down her government pension. We see a factory worker (Deng Deng) laid off by a smirking middle manager (Jack Crumlin).
This Montague Basement production, staged in the 4th floor Bordello room of the Kings Cross Hotel, uses the entire space as its stage. While there is seating available, the audience is subtly encouraged to follow Phoebe as she roves the room’s various alcoves and performance stations.
To stay in one place might feel safer but guarantees you won’t get the full experience.
On this occasion, it took some time for the audience to overcome its inclination to stay put but after 15 or 20 minutes (of a 70 minute show), the event had found its feet. A few of us found ourselves on the dancefloor late in the piece, contributing to the human scenery.
Directed and soundscaped by Saro Lusty-Cavallari, not all of the scenes pop with the same force. A few ring hollow or melodramatic. Others are potent.
Those that catch you by surprise in the same dim pool of light as a character, feel invigoratingly too close for comfort.