Women's Choice

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Review of the Last Waltz Season, Arcola Theatre, Hackney, London

As the play Musik opens, the respectable veneer of the bourgeois setting is immediately undermined. There may be a piano in the corner, a bust of Mozart and fur-trimmed coats on display but the worms are already wriggling right out of the can.

Klara, an 18 year old music student from Switzerland is about to flee Germany to avoid imprisonment. Following an affair with Josef Reissner - the married music tutor in whose home she has been lodging - she had become pregnant, sought an abortion and is now implicated in the trial of the abortionist.

Written and set in 1906, Musik is by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, better known for Spring Awakenings, which scandalised audiences with its open discussion of adolescent sexuality. His work is critical of bourgeois values, particularly sexual repression, and exposes hypocrisy. Wedekind was also an innovator in dramatic form, rejecting the naturalistic trends of the period for the more overtly theatrical, peppering his work with exaggeration, satire and poetry.

Musik takes place entirely indoors - whether in the Reissners' home or Klara's prison cell - but society outside, headed by a military aristocracy, constantly impinges on the characters' lives. The Reissners are threatened with scandal and financial ruin, Klara with disgrace and imprisonment. It is, however, Klara who is judged and punished for her transgressions while Josef is protected by a moral code based on double standards. 'Dapper charismatic little Josef' has, at the beginning of the play, won Klara's heart but as his real attitudes are uncovered we share her disillusionment. Josef's concern for Klara is merely self-serving, he refers to his wife as a 'stupid little bitch', and at one point flies into a rage when Klara rejects his sexual advances.

Although repressive, this was a period of social change in which the established order was threatened - for example by the growing Social Democrat movement in Germany and by the reverberations of Russia's 1905 revolution. In Musik this atmosphere is explored through the character Franz, a liberal journalist who has railed against the anti-abortion law and even promoted a woman's 'right to choose'. Yet he is outraged by the suffering of Josef's wife, and writes a reactionary article about Klara, branding her an immoral 'foreign element'. Liberal views, at least in this case, do not seem to stretch beyond the abstract.

This production is imaginatively staged with a strong cast. Musik is part of the Last Waltz Season, which brings together three plays from Germany and Austria written at the turn of the 20th century. Rose Bernd by Gerhart Hauptmann also portrays a woman whose unwanted pregnancy leads her to crime. Arthur Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi starts with the case of a botched abortion but the main theme is the anti-Semitic witchhunt of a Jewish doctor in Vienna.

The plays give an insight into a key period in German and Austrian history and in addressing racism and abortion rights - the latter just recently threatened by pronouncements by Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor - are not without contemporary relevance.