Georg Kaiser's From Morning to Midnight is a piece of expressionist theatre where more emphasis has been placed on the staging rather than any emotional involvement with the characters. Now, this makes for a few interesting visual spectacles and set-pieces but when these dry up, you find yourself locked in to a interminably over-earnest piece of work.
In what passes as the story, a bank clerk (Adam Godley) works all day in a bank. All his humanity, his soul has been crushed from him. But when a customer, a beautiful Italian lady (Gina Bellman), accidentally caresses his hand as she tries (but fails) to get the bank to fulfil a withdrawal request, her tenderness awakens in him feelings he thought he had long forgotten.
The scales fall from his eyes. What has he been doing with his life? The clerk makes a decision. He steals 60,000 marks to give to the beautiful Italian woman. But when she rejects both the money and his sexual advances, the clerk decides that he can no longer return to his pathetic humdrum existence and instead goes out into the world.
Initially the play moves quickly as the clerk tries to live life and find meaningful connection. There's plenty of humour in his fumbled advances and life on the run. But of course it transpires that as soon as anyone he encounters realises he has all this money, so their attitude to him changes. Now that he has money, he's gone from zero to hero.
That money is the most corrupting of influences is not news to modern audiences and certainly the hammering home of this very obvious message really takes its toll in the second half. As the clerk looks for redemption, the play loses all its humour and starts to drag - heavily.
Is there anything redeeming in this piece of theatre? Unequivocally, yes.
The set design from Soutra Gilmour is absolutely extraordinary. The bank where the clerk works is brilliantly designed as a machine, reinforcing the message of our place in the corporate world. And the design continues to frame the clerk's journey perfectly.
At one point, as the clerk is running from the hotel where he has been rejected by the Italian lady, the bed-sheets the hotel maids are changing are suddenly swept up into one huge bed-sheet that covers the stage and reforms as deep snow drifts in the parks of Berlin. The breakdown of the clerk's mind is also wonderfully realised in the fluidity of sets, as they start to break up whilst scenes are still being played out.
But a show cannot be recommended on set design alone. And though the cast are commended for their effort, there just isn't enough in the source material to engage an audience.
With Emil and the Detectives on next door in the Olivier, the National's decision to stage a production in the Lyttleton also set in pre-Nazi Germany is a bit odd. Isn't the purpose of having three theatres under one roof to encourage diversity?
Anyway, it's a bold decision by the National to take on such an unusual piece of theatre. It has to be pretty unique on the London stage right now. Perhaps they know this will divide audiences, appealing to only a few - hence why this show's run is so short, finishing at the end of January.
Nevertheless I am reluctant to recommend it. Though I found the staging extraordinary and there are moments of genuinely laugh-out loud humour, it's just too bizarre, too lacking in an engaging character arc to appeal to a wide audience.
But if you want to see something completely unique then do go and see From Morning to Midnight. But remember to a) leave at the interval, and 2) the National doesn't give refunds if you decide that actually you should have stayed at home.
National Theatre, London
To January 26, 2014