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Review: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

A harrowing exploration of love and pain

Walking into Pembroke New Cellars feels like intruding onto the set itself: two armchairs so close the audience can practically touch them, a little behind them a large bed with our titular character sprawled across it, framed by a typewriter on one side and bottles of alcohol on the other, the background adorned with clothes hung in an overlapping parade of colour.

This production makes use of the intimacy, drawing us into the claustrophobic world of Petra von Kant (Rosy Sida), a 35-year-old fashion designer in 1970s Germany – wealthy, self-absorbed, sadistic, and convinced she knows what love is supposed to be. Enter Karin (Eleanor Watson), a 23-year-old doe-eyed beauty who instantly leaves Petra speechless. Within a day, Petra has become completely infatuated and offers to let Karin live with her while she teaches her to be a model.

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Photo credit: Katherine Wills

Sida perfectly captures Petra as she devolves from imperious, self-assured monologues supported by haughty body language into hysteria: shaking, screaming, smashing china and crying into her gin. Watson also nails Karin’s initial youthful timidity, only to slowly reveal the many layers to the character’s personality and past, sometimes using as little as a glance. As she becomes callous and predatory, Petra matches her with possessiveness and wild attempts at emotional manipulation.

The silence of the play adds to the oppressive atmosphere, allowing the cast to convey both subtle and chaotic emotions with a gut punch. Moments of rising tension are punctuated by Marlene (Claire Chung) hammering away on the typewriter. When music does enter the scene, it is because Petra has put on a record – first so that she herself can dance, slowly swaying to the sensual music, and later so she can agonisingly watch Karin do the same.

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Photo credit: Katherine Wills

Above all, Sida’s chemistry with the rest of the cast is what sells the narrative. Petra’s maid Marlene is a constant silent and stoic presence, drawing out Petra’s cruellest inclinations and conveying a kind of dark, subservient devotion. Where Petra risks slipping into eye-roll inducing melodrama, her cousin Sidonie (Inge-Vera Lipsius), daughter Gabriele (Georgina Deri), and mother Valerie (Amy Toledano) all provide excellent grounding for her very real and heart-wrenching crisis to unfold. Petra’s final conversation with her mother is tender, as the latter guides her daughter towards finally understanding herself and what it means to truly love someone.

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Photo credit: Katherine Wills

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant seems small-scale with its single setting and minimal cast, but the emotions and themes it addresses are certainly not. This production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a play about sadness, pain, loss, heartbreak, and how to love is fresh, engaging. It is one that director Sam Warren Miell should be proud of.

Come see it for a taste of what Cambridge’s female acting talent and queer theatre scene have to offer.

4/5 stars.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is on at Pembroke New Cellars until Thursday, November 22nd. Tickets are £6-£8.