In Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, we search for the meaning of love. Petra had just ended a marriage, but now finds herself enamoured with another. Through an examination on the nature of unrequited love, the play is an invitation to meditate on one of life’s biggest mysteries, by looking at the space between being in love and being out of love. Petra has an object of desire, someone she obsesses over, who responds with nonchalance. Her devotion is both voluntary and involuntary, she gives of herself in hope of reciprocation, continues to invest her all even when the outcome is not as intended. She thinks only that her suffering bears a purpose of winning favour, although does not realise the masochistic pleasures that envelope the burning sensations of pain she thrives on.
The writing is phenomenally thrilling and deeply important. Masochism is a pivotal part of our psyche, even though we make little acknowledgement of it. In our human inability to be perfect, we all experience on a daily basis, the impulse to do what is not going to deliver the best results. Although we wish for a level of optimal performance in all the things we do, we are not machines, and we know that the instinctive tendencies to jeopardise are always strong. We are expected to be good, but really, we cannot stop from wanting to be bad. Our ethics prevent us from being destructive with the decisions we make at work, at home, in society, yet when discussing the romantic and the carnal, destructiveness becomes personal and we have the right to choose how bad we wish to be. In his creation of Petra’s tragicomedy, Fassbinder reveals an honest aspect of humanity, and the inherent darkness of our existences. In our heroine’s pursuit of a very fiery love, she uncovers her true self, perfectly beautiful yet devastatingly vicious.
Sara Wiseman is resplendent in her warts and all portrayal of the title role. Operatic and visceral, it is a stunning performance of a woman in control, and out of control, overwhelmed by infatuation and lust, completely unhinged, motivated only by her own desires. Wiseman unleashes profound emotional and psychological accuracy that makes every debauched plot detail believable, along with a magnetic sensuality that has us entranced from beginning to end. Furthermore, it is not a narcissistic display that she puts on but a thoroughly nuanced study of dynamics between Petra and the people around her, with the star manufacturing scintillating chemistry with every co-actor for a show that keeps us frothing at the edge of our seats. Also fabulous is Matilda Ridgway, sensational in an entirely speechless role but powerfully present at the periphery of every scene. Marlene is a controversial servant character, made even more confronting by Ridgway’s fierce dedication. It is a hugely impressive study of the only woman on stage who gets everything she wants.
The production looks sophisticated, severe and sexy. Georgia Hopkins’ set is executed with a confident minimalistic edge, radiantly glamorous and intimidating in its strict glossy blackness (atmospherically lit by Alexander Berlage). Shane Bosher’s direction breathes new, electrifying life into a play approaching its fiftieth year, proving that Fassbinder’s ageless legacy continues to be relevant and resonant, especially when it comes to issues of our libido. Bosher’s love of the strong female is magnificently showcased here, with every woman bold and alluring in her uniqueness. His fetishistic depiction of Petra as Goddess allows the show to bewitch and to inspire awe. The temptress and us, breathe the same air, but we are at her mercy, and anywhere she wishes to take us in the theatre, we must surrender, and revel in it.