Tom Fool Me!
“A responsible person always has something to do.”
Franz Xaver Kroetz is the most often produced German playwright in Germany in the present day. To quote dramaturg Jennifer Bakst in the Orange Tree programme, “Kroetz’s plays frequently deal in hollow chatter punctuated instead frequently with pregnant silences as his characters struggle with their inability to articulate their true thoughts and feelings.”
Kroetz was for some time a member of the West German Communist Party in the 1970s and Tom Fool or Mensche Meier (Oh Man or Goodness Gracious) was written in 1978. Tom Fool describes the home life of Otto (Michael Shaeffer) and his wife Martha (Anna Francolini) and their teenage son Ludwig (Jonah Rzeskiewicz).
Their conversation is of the most mundane, details that are uncalled for and tedious. For a few days afterwards whenever I said anything that might have been in a Kroetz play, I felt suitably chastened. The humour comes from us being amused at the triviality of it all. Instead of amusement, I found myself mostly groaning at how boring life is for his mundane characters.
It is a salutary lesson that I often react like this to German plays despite their high fashion in the 2000s. An advocate of German drama, Simon Stephens was sitting in the middle of the front row at the Orange Tree but his plays I admire. Zoe Hurwitz’s set is a sad little flat dominated by a large old fashioned television and utilitarian furniture which confines the life of this family. The unexpected entrance is made by a large model glider, its wings maybe 12 feet in diameter held together by tape after being smashed up in each staging so far. Goodness knows what it will look like by the end of the run! It has to be carefully edged into the playing area.
The play starts with Martha and Otto watching a royal wedding while their son sits on the floor scratching his back on the arm of the sofa and saying, “I’m starving!” Later on their own after sex, Martha asks Otto what he was thinking about during sex and he says that it is two weeks since his boss borrowed his Parker 51 pen and didn’t return it. Cue for a long conversation from Otto about the virtues and superior quality of that pen, the speculative, anticipated reaction of the boss and the honesty of the boss and other employees.. His voice suddenly reminds me of Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp.
Another scene has Otto alone commentating on his imaginary crowning as World Champion pilot flying his model glider. It is a stifling household and Martha is opinionated and controlling. I’m really surprised that Ludwig hasn’t completely gone off the rails. What has happened is that he is unemployed. I just find it hard to laugh at this agonising conversation like Otto’s detail on how to clean round the toe cap of shoes.
Discovery of missing money from Martha’s purse has terrible consequences for Ludwig, for the flat and ultimately for Otto and Martha’s marriage. To say any more would be a spoiler but it is very hard to review the play without alluding to the destruction.
Suffice it to say that Ludwig says “I’d rather be dead than taking after you!” Otto is full of self loathing but Martha becomes a more sympathetic character.
The acting is superb. I am a great admirer of Anna Francolini but do wish she had a more rewarding role and didn’t have to wear that dreadful wig. Both the men are as they should be but I still can’t get pleasure from this dysfunctional household. Why is their inability to articulate amusing?
Kroetz describes plays as “a last ditch effort to preserve humanity”. God help humanity!
Written by Franz Xaver Kroetz
Directed by Diyan Zora
Director: Diyan Zora
Designer: Zoe Hurwitz
Movement Design: Chris Evans
Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne
Sound Designer: Jo Dines
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Booking to 16th April 202
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Orange Tree
on 16th March 2022