at Inlingua Edinburgh, Sunday 19th August 2012
Up until the last five minutes of Request Programme, I found the piece banal, tedious and repetitive. For an entire hour, we watch a lonely middle aged woman with obsessive cleanliness and strict routine from the time she gets home from work to the moment she goes to bed. The final minutes, however, retrospectively twist the play, turning it from a dull play about the home into an extraordinary piece about suicide.
Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 1973 play is entirely without words; he wrote is merely as stage directions, and this production features speech only from a night-time radio request programme. Actions are repeated time and time again until we want to shake the woman into consciousness, telling her that such routines aren’t necessary.
After watching her for an hour, we then see her take an overdose. Before she does so, she pours herself a glass of champagne to wash it down, letting the drips fall onto the normally spotless table top. The world as she knew it is now completely over, and in her last moments she looks each and every audience member in the eye in this small third-floor room. We’re partly to blame.
The attention to detail in both play and production is astonishing. Kroetz ensures that the woman’s movements adhere to a strict routine which has been beautifully worked out. The levels of compulsion are also surprisingly funny; she puts on two pairs of gloves to wash up and cuts her small meal with precision. Being lonely, this routine is comforting, and though she is clearly deeply unhappy, there is no need for this to come out in private. The bedsit which has been created here exists believably in the space, and we sit around it, intruders on her personal calm. We could stop her at any moment, but we don’t; society’s inability to reach out is the reason why she is alone in the first place.
Cecilia Nilsson’s performance is simple and considered but contains unfathomable depths. At any one moment, her only motivation is to do whatever she is doing, but the thought of suicide, when we look back, was always there. An emptiness behind her eyes makes it clear she is longing for something to happen to her, whatever that may be. She is calm right until the end, when the champagne bottle slips. It’s a startlingly simple portrait of a woman in the pits of despair, and doesn’t buy into over-emoting. Everything is in her actions.
When Request Programme was first presented in the 70s, suicide was a taboo subject, and the play was talked about a lot for being controversial. In 2012, we’re happier to talk about the subject, but that makes it no less difficult to watch as a piece. We are also reminded just how much further we have to go as a society to change views on the matter. Request Programme is a harrowing, challenging experience, but also offers hope that we can begin to understand such a difficult topic as this.