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Portrait of a Planet


The Sunday Times, 4th February 1973, Harold Hobson


There is too much emotion in ‘Small Craft Warnings’; and too little in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ‘Portrait of A Planet’ (Prospect Theatre Company’s workshop production: Arts Theatre, Cambridge). This play is a series of arid deductions drawn from a fallacious premise. It begins, and also ends, with four gods, one of them deaf (everything has to be repeated to him), contemplating from a great distance the explosion of a sun. “The cosmological hypothesis which,” says Mr Dürrenmatt, “was the source of ‘Portrait of a Planet’ [is that] planets only come into existence when the disintegrated matter from exploding suns … collects around clouds of hydrogen which are themselves in the process of forming suns, so that we are in fact living upon the remains of an unimaginable cosmic catastrophe.” Since, according to Mr Dürrenmatt, life begins with a catastrophe, he concludes that everything in it must be catastrophic.


The play, such as it is, and as it goes on, is a series of disasters: the abolition of cannibalism leads to starvation, a man and a woman die on the moon whilst reciting speeches from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the President of the United States gets into a panic, and America and Russia co-operate to ensure that the war in Vietnam is not brought to an end. All this is shown to us drily and without feeling, as if it were an irrefutable intellectual argument.


It is nothing of the sort. A cosmic explosion is not in itself a catastrophe. There is no reason to suppose that matter is any less happy when exploding than when in a steady state. It all depends on the effect of the explosion: an explosion that makes human life possible is quite different, in emotional terms from one that destroys it. It is no more true to say that because human life began with an explosion therefore everything in it must be disastrous, than it would be to argue that because a car cannot start without an explosion every drive must end in a smash. The dullness of Mr Dürrenmatt’s exposition ceases to bore only when the shabby colloquialism of James Kirkup’s translation makes it infuriating. The sole consolation is in some of the performances: Linda Marlowe, Ron Smerczak, and Michael Pennington especially play with grace, commitment and authority.




Stage and Television Today, 8th February 1973


The Prospect Theatre Company are to be congratulated on their policy of “workshop presentations” outside the larger theatres. The latest is Durrenmatt’s ‘Portrait of a Planet’ at the Arts, Cambridge, in James Kirkup’s translation under the direction of Kenny McBain.


Durrenmatt’s central intention are obscure, and treatment is episodic, grimly humorous, and in places savage. The play begins and ends with the same scene: four bored gods, not really interested in the fate of the earth and its inhabitants. In between, successive cameos treat of Vietnam, peace negotiations, racial intolerance, ecological crises, power politics, the beginnings and endings of civilisation, lunar adventures and so on.


The scene involving two astronauts, a man and a woman, being monitored as their oxygen gives out is typical of Durrenmatt’s approach. The monitors are sadly but transiently involved in the tragedy as the man quotes “Romeo and Juliet” but, as his dying sentence reverts to patriotism, they (the monitors) change from essentially human beings to mere enthusiastic functionaries of the system. The impact of this and other scenes if evocative, cumulative and perturbing, but that is legitimate theatre and no bad thing.


Durrenmatt’s format make terrific demands on the protean talents of the cast, each member taking at least a dozen parts, all with verisimilitude and conviction, (and a clarity of diction which lifted the words off the page and vitalised the script).



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