To the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, for Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's The Underpants. It's nice to see that Steve has actually been doing something apart from not making movies. Has he made anything decent since Father of the Bride?
A woman’s knickers fall down in public. Hardly the crime of the century, you might think. Somewhat embarrassing, yes, but nothing beyond that. Well, you’d be right, but this particular pair of knickers falls down in front of the Kaiser in Germany of a hundred years ago. Shame! Disgrace! Hilarity! ensue.
The descending drawers cause all sorts of trouble because their owner’s husband is a priggish petit bourgeois civil service clerk who now fears social humiliation and the loss of his uber-respectable job. Theo (Owen Brenman), the clerk, self-righteously and cruelly berates his wife, Louise (Dolly Wells), but has not realised the intense interest her slip has caused. In double time, a louche poet called Versati (Michael Jayes) and a Jewish barber (Ian Angus Wilkie) turn up at Theo’s flat, apparently wanting to rent the spare room but really hoping to get closer to the entrancing underwear-dropper.
With the aid of nosey neighbour Gertrude (Erika Poole), who thinks Louise should have an affair and reclaim some joy beyond her drab marriage, marital and sexual complications ensue as Louise tries to work out which suitor she wants and how she can avoid her husband finding out.
The play is laugh-out-loud funny several times, especially when adulterers and accomplices are nearly caught by Theo and so have to dance their way out of their awkward positions. The double entendres are deliberately crass (“Is the sausage in the oven?”) but no less funny for it, while Erika Poole as Gertrude channels Julie Walters to great effect. Think Dinnerladies but all they’re serving is bratwurst.
There is some nice self-reference within the play and Versati has a wonderful, pompous self-delusion which causes him to go, “Oh well, society’s loss,” when he doesn’t write down lines he’s composed. Most of the time you’re gently amused if not doubled in your seat with tears in your eyes.
What makes The Underpants interesting, as opposed to just mildly diverting, is its modern context. When it was written, in 1911, the Nazis were not on the horizon – the First World War had not even been fought. Yet what Steve Martin has brought out in the character of Theo – and what we can only see given our sixty years’ hindsight – is a definite proto-Nazi; Steve Martin could hardly have been unaware of this when he adapted the play.
When Cohen wants to move in, he gives Theo his name but hurriedly adds, “It’s Cohen with a ‘k’.” While this is funny for its obvious deceit, we see it also as a harbinger of things to come. It does not help that Wilkie as Cohen resembles actor Anthony Sher as concentration camp survivor Primo Levi.
Theo wants to toughen up Cohen, who constantly complains about having a weak constitution (tell that to the Weimar Republic). In fact, Theo is obsessed with physical health and perfection, making Cohen clasp his thigh and feel his chest to demonstrate his health, oblivious to the homo-erotic aspect. This emphasis on physicality cannot help but recall later ideas of Aryan perfection.
Versati, as the poet, is interested in art, philosophy and theology, all things Theo scorns as the province of the weak. From our perspective, when you see a poet and a Jew being harangued about the ideal man (“I know what a man is!” says Theo) by an oddly narcissistic and chauvinist German (it’s women’s fault for being desirable – they should cover up, he says, strangely presaging a modern-day debate), you feel troubled. When the Nazis do eventually roll around, despite Theo’s craven loyalty to the Kaiser, it seems like he would be among the first to agree with them.
We cannot, however, say that this was Sternheim’s intention – he could not see into the future. He was writing about the hypocrisy of the contemporary bourgeois, using a Brechtian lack of subtlety to point out that the middle classes were secretly no better than those they criticised. This point still holds true, even if it is not now hugely astonishing. What we take away from The Underpants is a new layer that a hundred years of terrifying history have added.