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Chilling drama in Suffer Little Children

25 June, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

SUFFER Little Children is another terrific European import – an unsettling, one-act drama that confounds expectations.

An Austrian woman (Maggie Steed, pictured), looks back at her life in a God-fearing, farming community. Her two children want a big family celebration for her 80th birthday, but she wants only to be left in peace. As we discover, they are stirring a hornet’s nest.

Everything is a trial for the old woman. They drag her reluctantly to buy a new outfit and then to the hairdressers. As they prepare a birthday cake, a meal and a slide show the woman feels increasingly sick. She adopts a petulant tone as they force her to blow out the birthday candles, burning her hair in the process.

Gabriele Kogl (deftly translated by Michael Hastik) employs farming language to convey an existence defined by hard work and the harsh outdoors.

The woman resents her daughter’s curiosity: “She wants to get old stories out of me, cut up my life, joint it, the way you butcher a cow, and dismember it and then stuff the cuts in a freezer.” While the family gathering is described as a “slurry of voices”.

During her 45-minute monologue, the woman recounts a miserable life on the family farm and the demise of an abused mother who gave birth to eleven children: “far too many for people that poor”. After her mother died in childbirth, she was forced, as the eldest, to take care of her siblings.

Her daughter believes her father was a Russian soldier who died in the war. When she asks if her mother had joined the Hitler Youth, the old woman retorts bitterly in her head: “I had no youth. I had a child without a father.”

Gradually, the reasons for the woman’s reluctance to divulge her past are revealed.

Steed effortlessly peels back the woman’s brittle shell as she lays bare shocking secrets. Her performance is all the more impressive because she has only her voice to convey a lifetime of bitterness. Adapted and directed by Jessica Dromgoole, this immersive and chilling drama keeps us guessing until its final moments.

BBC Radio 4, June 30, 2.15pm

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