FRINGE 2020 – Taboo – The Adina Treasury Tunnels – 4K

Alexander Ewers


It reads like an episode out of A Handmaid’s Tale. A post-apocalyptic world threatens the fabric of family and society. A woman of extraordinary charisma and single-minded determination is the cause of unspeakable hurts to other women. This woman is feted and rewarded in her lifetime for actions that hide the true harm of her work. The woman remains serenely self-assured of virtue, and that the ends justify the means.

But Taboo is far from fiction, and is only as dystopian as the world we live in today. Styled as a talk-show interview, Taboo shines a spotlight on Kathe Petersen, the Austrian social worker-cum-lawyer celebrated by both the regimes of the Third Reich and post-war Germany for her contributions to helping the vulnerable in society. Her laudative epitaph, however, hides an active, driving role in the incarceration, torture and forced “incapacitation” (aka sterilisation) of hundreds of women in the name of morality enforcement. It is an almost incomprehensible dichotomy: a woman of inestimable ambition and groundbreaking achievements pursuing and perpetrating the moral, sexual and emotional subjugation of other women. Appropriately then perhaps, Taboo makes for perplexing theatre, tearing the audience between two discomfiting states: transfixed, almost cowed by the daunting presence and intelligence of Kathe Petersen (powerfully personated by playwright Karin Schmid); horrified and outraged, on the other hand, on behalf of the countless abused, shattered and tormented women at Petersen’s mercy.

The show’s overall success leans on twin strengths of historical accuracy and strong thespian talent. But Taboo falters somewhat in stage dynamics. The intended talk-show style proves to flounder from a sense of uncertainty, the ‘host’ not quite striking the right tone for such a setting. Elements of sardonicism, cynicism, or overfamiliarity detract from the professionalism one would associate with a talk-show host and contribute to a sense of lopsided imbalance in the face of  Petersen’s commanding presence. At times, this discomfort is palpable to the extent where the ‘host’ presence on stage feels sometimes superfluous and distracting. As a reflection, the energy on stage languishes at times, drifting between part Nuremberg trial, part lounge-room conversation, and part Q&A, but failing to be quite any of them. One could imagine a more disciplined and consistent approach, more Leigh Sales than Whoopie Goldberg, could work particularly well for this setting, particularly as a foil to balance the sheer dominance of the convincingly acted Petersen role.

Borne up though, by the sheer force of captivating, improbable truth, Taboo is compelling theatre. It leaves many questions about the nature of vulnerability and the vulnerable. Who are the vulnerable? What is the relationship between taboo and vulnerability? Do the ‘vulnerable’ (as decreed by the Petersen’s of the world) actually consider themselves vulnerable? Is vulnerability best answered with paternalism or with empowerment? By diktat or by democracy?

Taboo closes with a stimulating post-show discussion and question time, a particularly powerful choice that effectively burnishes the audience’ understanding and impression of character, playwright and intended message. If the question-time grapplings with the incomprehensibles of the Kathe Petersen dichotomy are a metric for meaningfulness, it would seem that a deeper question about the relationship between true power and vulnerability is one of the enduring impacts of this show. Is true power the mastery of one’s own vulnerability, or the mastery over the vulnerable? Is it victory over taboo, or victory of the taboo?

This show is called Taboo and it is a challenge, a call-to-arms, a solemn charge. What is taboo? Let us go there. There is extraordinary power in the taboo. Power either to release and to bind. How will you face Taboo?

Kryztoff Rating 4K

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