Written in 1912 and first performed in Germany in 1917, From Morning to Midnight by Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) was the best work of the German Expressionist movement, but is rarely staged in Britain. Borrowing its seven-act Stationendrama structure from medieval mystery plays and August Strindberg’s Road to Damascus, Kaiser’s thirtieth play follows a Cashier who is alerted to the power of the money around him by a glamorous Italian woman who wants to buy a painting, embezzles 60,000 Marks and ditches his family for the city, trying and failing to buy a meaningful experience in sport, sex and religion.
Fiercely anti-Naturalistic, From Morning to Midnight epitomised the Expressionist style, popular in Germany around the First World War, stripping all circumstantial detail and character psychology to focus on the individual’s search for enlightenment, with exclamatory dialogue that outlined the New Man’s vision. As such, it presents a considerable challenge for translators and directors, and its lead actor, not last because the Cashier’s defeat always feels inevitable, but Melly Still’s realisation of a new version by Dennis Kelly at the National Theatre meets it by focusing on the imaginative staging possibilities and dark wit that the script offers.
After the war, Expressionist artists and dramatists worked with directors to create new types of theatre and film, exploring the political and aesthetic limits of German public taste. Notoriously, cinemas refused to show Karl-Heinz Martin’s film of From Morning to Midnight, made in 1920, claiming that its use of two-dimensional sets and its representation of the Cashier’s mounting frustration with ever-thicker rings around his eyes made it too abstract and alienating for a mass audience. Throughout the Weimar period – Kaiser was one of its most popular playwrights – theatre directors incorporated fragments of film and sets made by Expressionist artists, and Still’s production engages with this spirit of cross-fertilisation.
With the action occurring on a single day, a clock at the back of the stage runs throughout, as does one in Martin’s film. Kaiser’s seven-act structure, which parodies the stations of the cross in Christian morality plays, is made equally explicit, with short, stark titles for each projected onto the action. The performance opens with ‘The Machine’, setting out Still’s intention to counter Kaiser’s pessimism with humour: as the Cashier, confined in his cubicle, Adam Godley’s silent, mechanistic actions recall Chaplin in Modern Times, and it immediately becomes obvious that From Morning to Midnight will contain more levity than most Expressionist dramas, which sometimes became ridiculous in their sheer seriousness.
Although the Cashier does not speak until the end of the first scene, it is very much his play. Few other actors besides Godley get the opportunity to do anything more than push the action forward, with the brief exception of Gina Bellman as the Italian woman who incites the Cashier and the Salvation Army woman who stirs his conscience. Mostly, Godley copes admirably with the responsibility of carrying the narrative, but occasionally falls into the kind of over-acting associated with silent film, which was partly a function of the lack of sound, but fashionable in the theatre of the time, particularly Expressionism, and imported from it.
Kelly pares down Kaiser’s declamatory monologues, which feel far less than fevered than those in J M Ritchie’s 1971 translation for Calder Publications, recently reissued by Oneworld Classics but it is not these that Godley overplays so much as the Cashier’s moments of realisation that his desires will not be fulfilled – particularly when he learns that the Italian woman has a son.
However, Kelly provides several opportunities for the Cashier to undercut such exaggeration with sardonic asides, and Godley delivers them with the necessary subtlety. The two handle Kaiser’s monologues intelligently, with the long Epiphany of scene three becoming ecstatic, exciting and absurd in equal measure: the Cashier’s Nietzschean aspirations, and his inability to see that individual transcendence in an unchanged society is impossible, carry more irony in our post-revolutionary times than when From Morning to Midnight was first performed, just before the Spartacist uprising and the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, led by future Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller.
Godley achieves a thrilling pitch of intensity in the play’s strongest scene, in which the Cashier ramps up the prize money at a six-day cycle, unconcerned for the safety of riders or spectators as he struggles to generate a satisfying spectacle. This is where the actor and translator are most successful in portraying his misconceived dreams, and their crushing by conservative hands: elsewhere, Kelly’s dialogue is sometimes too expository. The Cashier does not need to say, for example, that “I’m going to find the one experience that means something – I have broken free!” but even this flaw is made intentionally amusing at points, not least when the Cashier ceases to hide his boredom with his bourgeois family, who simply ask: “Why don’t you do things the way you normally do them?”
The most impressive aspect is Soutra Gilmour’s stage design, which shares the radicalism of the sets for Martin’s film. The loud, dazzling short circuits that terminate the Cashier’s fantasies in several scenes are most striking, although the bank transforming into a hotel between scenes one and two and the façade of the Cashier’s home becoming the train that takes him to B(erlin) also make brilliantly creative use of the jumps between Kaiser’s scenes. Most notable in a production that succeeds in nearly all of its commendable risks, however, is what we don’t see: the money that drives and destroys the Cashier. Its invisibility lends even more resonance to the pithy signature phrase that Godley utters to the audience, which contrasts with Kaiser’s wordiness but perfectly fits into this thoroughly German play despite being so typically British: “Is this it?”
From Morning to Midnight is at the National Theatre until 26 January 2014.