Open Theatre’s Production of Anthony Neilson’s ‘Normal’ is incredibly disturbing but highly powerful. The play is a semi-fictional account of the experience the lawyer Justus Wehner (Thomas Davy), who has been assigned his first case: the defence of the notorious ‘Düsseldorf Ripper’, Peter Kurten (Salim Kalache). Kurten was a renowned serial killer in Germany in the late 1920s who idolised Jack the Ripper. He claimed his motive was the great sexual ecstasy he experienced when committing violent acts. The play begins in the run-up to his trail in April 1931 and ends with his execution in July. It is directed by Eve Walton and produced by Joe Jones.
We follow Justus from the start of the case, where he believes that he does not have to prove Kurten’s innocence, only his insanity. But, Justus’s interactions with Kurten and his wife (Daisy Kakkar) lead him to question his very understanding of the world, and what makes someone ‘normal’. One of Justus’s final statements echoes the horrors of Nazi Germany that succeed events of the play. Here, Neilson expresses his understanding of how the political climate in Germany at the time played into the events.
The director, Eve Walton, takes advantage of her trio of actors and makes Kakkar double as a mannequin representing various victims of Kurten, which leads to a haunting portrayal of Christine Klein, a nine-year-old girl who Kurten discovered asleep in her bed, whilst he was burgling her family home, and whom he then murdered. I was fascinated by her ability to play out so many different portrayals of Frau Kurten when Justus’s psyche begins to descend into chaos as they get closer to the trial.
Kalache stood out to me as the most impressive actor in the play. He conveys an effective, if unsettling, portrayal of Kurten as multifaceted, making his wife’s obliviousness to his true identity even more believable. In her director’s note, Walton discusses how modern society has become obsessed with these sorts of figures, but stresses that the purpose of the play is not to make you wonder why Kurten did such atrocious things because this is not his story, but that of those around him.
The set designer, Ell Johnson makes great use of the hanging projector to explore the state of Justus’s psyche as he spends increasing amounts of time with Kurten in the run up to, and during his case. The crew took used the black box theatre to create suspense through the use of blackouts, during which the audience can hear and feel Kalache walking near them, but do not know exactly where he is, replicating Justus’s experiences in Kurten’s cell whilst prepping him for court.
Walton expresses in the director’s note that the play was a massive step out of her comfort zone, which is understandable because of its extremely experimental nature. However, other than a few disjointed scene transitions, this has not held the cast or crew back in any way as I found the play to be well-executed.
Thomas Davy as Justus Wehner
Salim Kalache as Peter Kurten
Daisy Kakkar as Frau Kurten
Director – Eve Walton
Producer – Joe Jones
Assistant Director – Eden Vaughan
Assistant Producer – Bethan Corner
Choreographer – Aimee Cross
Set Designer – Ell Johnson
Lighting Designer – Fran Partlett
Shadow Directors – Lydia Collins, Spike Woodley and Eliza Harlan
Shadow Producer – Chuange Qin