Wartime Europe through the eyes of an innocent – or not by Christian Baines
How does the first half of Europe’s 20th century appear through the eyes of a child? In particular, a man who remains a child by force of will, and perhaps through the magic of his treasured toy drum? The world of Gunter Grass’s novel is one in which the forces of fantasy, tragedy and whimsy converge against the backdrop of turbulent politics and a Continent on the brink of monumental change.
Oskar (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) is three years old when he discovers the wonders of his drum and resolves never to grow up. One household accident later, Oskar is granted his wish, albeit counterbalanced with a rapidly advancing intellect. To the outside world however, he is slow and ill-developed, much to the grief of his mother Agnes (Margaret Evans). Agnes has been splitting her life between her husband Matzerath (Gordon Bolan) and lover (among other things) Jan (Cyrus Lane), whose wife Hedwig (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) meanwhile has taken quite a shine to Oskar. The unravelling of this unhappily functional family is just the first in a string of calamities centred around the boy/man as he begins to grow old, but not up. Is he the cause? Or just witness to the destruction others bring unto themselves?
While The Tin Drum is certainly whimsical, it is not a light, breezy night at the theatre. In fact, clocking in at two and a half hours, it’s something of a marathon, dealing with some weighty subject matter. Yet never once do we feel overwhelmed, nor does the story ever feel like it’s reaching or trying too hard, probably thanks to the consistency with which it retains Oskar’s childlike voice and worldview. Some parts of the script can feel sluggish as Oskar narrates us through, but these moments are relatively rare, allowing us to enjoy a very grown-up story from a child’s perspective.
It’s almost impossible to choose a standout from the cast, which is as much a credit to director Chris Hanratty as it is to them. Rarely have I seen an ensemble this size work so cohesively, particularly across multiple characters (as each cast member except for Dwyre does). Evans, Lane and Bolan explore their love triangle with such tenderness and sincerity we become hopelessly invested in their character's fates, despite their considerable character flaws. Scott Clarkson and Shira Leuchter are equally commanding on stage as two travelling entertainers keen to adopt Oskar – and his talents – into their own stage family.
The Tin Drum also features magnificent production design by David Degrow, Anna Treusch and Christopher Stanton. While someone evidently went a little crazy at IKEA, the result not only looks great but is perfectly suited to the imaginings (and re-tellings) of a young boy. Certain aspects of realism are sacrificed to create the feel of an adult child telling his tale from the confines of an asylum, which is precisely what Oskar is doing.
UnSpun Theatre has delivered a hefty piece from Grass’s novel, one well worth the time, imagination and patience required to go along for the journey.