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Meiwes/Brandes at The Actors Centre – Tristan Bates Theatre

MEIWES BRANDESMeiwes/Brandes (pronounced ‘MY-vess’ and ‘BRAN-dess’ respectively), is a work in progress. The show is presented as part of the ‘John Thaw Initiative’ set up by The Actors Centre (also home to the Tristan Bates Theatre). It meets a number of criteria: the show has not been previously performed in London, it is no longer than 90 minutes, and includes an ‘education engagement element’, which means the audience ‘must’ be involved in some way. The Actors Centre has stipulated that “written feedback forms with no verbal interaction with the audience” is not acceptable, so, for a non-immersive show of this nature, audience engagement took the form of a post-performance discussion about the development of the show and future plans for it.

The story is, in a nutshell, grotesque, and whatever nuanced feelings towards the real main characters, Armin Meiwes and Bernd Brandes, the company (Scott Howland, Harriet Taylor, Laura Dorn and Rory Richardson) hold, having carefully researched the storyline, it really is quite sickening. The only mitigating factor, for me, is that written consent was procured by Meiwes, and he did not attempt to force Brandes to do anything against his will. The heavily publicised court case, which resulted in Meiwes being convicted of manslaughter in January 2004, led to a retrial after the eight-year prison sentence was considered by the German prosecution service to be too lenient. In May 2006, Meiwes was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The production focuses on the deep-rooted personal and psychological reasons behind the events that occur. Another (longer) play could have been written about the court cases themselves. It could either be more or less uncomfortable and freakish, dependent on how much ‘evidence’ such a play would want to present to the court, and therefore the audience. (I can only imagine how graphic somewhere like the National Theatre would want to be with a story like this one.) Cannibalism is legal in Germany, in the sense that there is no specific law that has been passed to deem it illegal, though of course murder is. But what was Brandes’ state of mind? Why on earth would he consent to ending his life in such a brutal manner?

What appears to have transpired, according to the play, is this: Brandes went to Meiwes’ large house in Rotenberg, described as having about 40 rooms. He was given a bottle of schnapps and a large number of sleeping pills to consume. One thing led to another until Brandes breathed his last. The play begins with a voiceover blinding (proverbially speaking) me with science; I do recall the possibility being raised that Brandes suffered from ‘body dysmorphic disorder’. The words of Dr Keith Ashcroft, a forensic psychologist, are quoted: “BDD is an extremely serious illness. Part of it is disassociation, where the person doesn’t feel connected to the body and doesn’t feel connected to the world, to the extent that they actually don’t feel pain. It is, in an extreme sense, similar to self-harm, when people cut themselves to feel better, to feel great, to feel real again. If this was his disorder, Brandes was enjoying what was happening to him.

A ‘health warning’, the sort of thing that appears just before a broadcast by a political party on British television, appears on the programme’s front cover, forewarning members of the audience that the show “contains strong sexual references and scenes of a distressing nature”. Well, it does: despite the heads-up, there were audible gasps from the audience when proceedings were at their most heinous.

Camilla Greenwell: MEIWES-BRANDES
Camilla Greenwell: MEIWES-BRANDES

As it stands, the show ends too abruptly, and watching Meiwes and Brandes typing away at laptops is not exactly riveting viewing. It would have been interesting to explore the aftermath of that horrid night and the resulting court cases. I note, for example, that Meiwes now regrets his actions and claims to be a vegetarian. Nonetheless, the musical numbers (thankfully, given the plot and subject matter, none of them involving exuberant dance routines) are well-composed and very easy to listen to. Filled with rhyming couplets, one or two of them are relatively upbeat, providing an intriguing juxtaposition between the tempo and the lyrical content. Lyrics such as “I wanna be consumed by you”, for instance, take on a double meaning. But the music then extends into the spoken dialogue for too long, taking on a lullaby-like sound, muting the severity of what is going on whilst threatening to send me into the Land of Nod. It’s telling that one of the most impactful moments involved no music at all.

I liked the steady pace of the play – despite the brief running time, it is not one of those shows that crams in too much into one act and leaves the audience bamboozled. It’s not the sort of topic that sounds at face value like a good idea for a musical, but this production succeeds in attempting to present some sort of commonality between Meiwes, Brandes and the wider human race, who, generally speaking, reach out for companionship, friendship and love. A surprisingly compelling show.

By Chris Omaweng

* Being a work in progress, a star rating is not given in this review. 

This new and daring piece of musical theatre chronicles the true story of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Brandes, two notorious German cannibals. While the story of their gruesome rendezvous received international attention, behind the media furore is a deeper story about love, pain, queer relationships, and mental health.

CAST
Armin Meiwes Harriet Taylor
Bernd Brandes Scott Howland
Additional Musicians Aurora Richardson, Laura Dorn

CREATIVE
Co-writer, co-director, performer Harriet Taylor
Co-writer, co-director, performer Aurora Richardson
Co-writer, co-director, performer Scott Howland
Co-writer, co-director, performer Laura Dorn

Friday 27th April – 8pm
Saturday 28th April – 8pm
www.meiwesbrandes.com
www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/

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