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Uitdehaags little foxes lack humanity

Lillian Hellmans The Little Foxes is not a rewarding play to direct or perform. For that, the portrayal of man by the American (1905-1984) is simply too gloomy. In Antoine Uitdehaag's direction, the Nationale Toneel unfortunately fails to add sufficient psychological stratification.

At The Little Foxes, successfully filmed in 1941 starring Bette Davis, Hellman sketched the new rich in the southern United States around 1900. Under a thin veneer of family ties, two brothers and a sister from the Hubbard family make each other's lives miserable. Motivation: mere profit. Sister Regina (Anniek Pheifer) has a bad marriage to heart-sick banker Horace Giddens (Pieter van der Sman). With her brothers Oscar (Jappe Claes) and Ben (Mark Rietman), she wants to invest in a new factory. Together they need Horace to put money on the table, but in the meantime they do nothing but scam and blackmail each other. When Horace finally dies in a dramatic passage, it has only financial significance for brothers and sister/wife.

Unscrupulous neoliberalism

Antoine Uitdehaag chose this piece because of the topicality of unconscionable neoliberalism. Brother Ben predicts the future in a sense when he says: "There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this across the country. They are not all called Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and one day the country will be theirs. We will get there.' It also fits with the theme of abuse and exploitation, which runs as a thread through the National Theatre's plays this year: abuse of trust in The reviewer, abuse of refugees in The golden dragon.

But The Little Foxes shoots through. A number of characters are so antipathetic that the comparison becomes implausible. Even a left-winger will not believe that the average neo-liberal is so thoroughly bad. Sympathy is especially aroused by the outsiders in the family. The noble Birdie (Betty Schuurman) was once married for her wealth by Oscar, a narrow-minded redneck who humiliates and beats his wife. Schuurman disarmingly portrays the wilting, over-drinking Birdie. Banker Horace may have spent his life playing dirty games, but with death in sight, he no longer wants to be a part of it - especially when his devoted daughter Alexandra (Sallie Harmsen) appears to be the victim. Van der Sman portrays Horace strongly and with dignity, although he sometimes screams quite forcefully for such a sick man. Servant Addie (Antoinette Jelgersma) tries in vain to keep everyone together.

It is all set in a brilliant set by Thomas Rupert, which reflects everything the play stands for. Dislocation: all the floors slope. Longing for another life: the audience looks out from the bleak, heavily built house. In doing so, we share in the characters' trapped feeling, while life behind the French doors seems lighter, even when it rains. Almost like film music, ominous fragments of delta blues sound occasionally.

Bob Dylan

It is in this setting that Sallie Harmsen provides a moving final passage. Whereas Alexandra's mother has wanted to escape the stuffy south by capturing as much money as possible, she chooses a different kind of escape: away from this family, without a penny if necessary. On the pick-up in the corner, she puts on Bob Dylan's rock hard Subterranean Homesick Blues up and tumbles furiously around the room, throwing open garden doors and throwing cushions off the sofa. Grief for her father and relief at her intended departure find a common outlet.

Perhaps this Dylan passage was Uitdehaag's reason for moving the play to the 1960s? Everything else - shares in US railways, arranged marriages between cousins, getting rich in cotton - is much more reminiscent of the period originally described around 1900. It would have been stronger to have chosen more unambiguously either time period. Alternatives to Addie's sneaky dance with the hoover and the use of the gramophone could well have been invented around 1900.

Prince Bernhard chuckle

But that is not the biggest flaw in this one The Little Foxes. This lies in the uncompromising approach to the cruelty of the protagonists. Claes arouses revulsion as aggressive underdog Oscar. The comic bumbling of his son Leo (Bram Suijker) feels almost inappropriate amid all the evil intrigue. Mark Rietman charms as unscrupulous Ben who plays his trumps with a Prince Bernhard-like chuckle, but also knows how to take his losses. Hardest of all is Regina. In the beginning, Pheifer portrays her as admittedly calculating but at times cheerful and longing for a better life. Later in the play, she lets her husband die without offering him the help he asked for, only to embark on another round of negotiations with her brothers immediately afterwards, completely emotionless. This total impassiveness is hard to believe, even if the dead person is a hated person, and even if his death creates opportunities.

Throughout the play, several passages explain Regina's character: why she wants to leave, why she despises her husband, why she holds a grudge against her brothers. This tragedy does not come across in the National Theatre, because by the end you no longer believe that this woman is capable of anything but evil. That makes it almost impossible to identify with yet her, and so the play ultimately leaves you with little more than a strong sense of unease about man's wickedness.

The Little Foxes by the National Theatre. Seen: 17 April 2016. Tour until 15 June.

Sallie Harmsen in The Little Foxes (Kurt van der Elst photo)
Sallie Harmsen in The Little Foxes (Kurt van der Elst photo)

Frans van Hilten

I am a freelance cultural journalist. Because I think an independent cultural voice is important, I enjoy writing for this platform.View Author posts

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