Brighton Fringe 2017
Why am I writing this review?
Why am I about to embark on setting down several hundred of my words so that you can read them below?
On the surface it’s simple. I’ve been to see Pernille Johnsen’s play – ‘A Remarkable Person’, and I’m writing a review so that you can get some idea of what the play’s about, and whether it’s any good.
But is that the real reason – is that all? Do I really care enough about your cultural well-being to work hard at keeping you informed?
Maybe the real reason I’m writing this review is much more about – Me.
Because all writers have egos …
‘A Remarkable Person’ opens on a funeral service. A cremation urn and a wreath are set up centre stage at the front, and a woman stands behind, gazing reverently at them.
“She was utterly remarkable. As a person, and as an author”. Then, close to tears, she speaks directly to the soul of the dead woman whose ashes are in front of her – “I feel I found myself, for the very first time, in your book”.
Touching. But we fairly quickly come to realise that the person speaking is the writer herself, and that she’s imagining that she’s a mourner at her own funeral. She’s fantasising about the image people will have of her after she’s dead. It might seem a bit ghoulish; but be honest – who hasn’t at some time imagined taking a sneak peek at their own obituary? I know I have …
The writer (I’ll refer to her as The Writer) is obsessed by the images, the façades, that we create for ourselves in order to influence how we are perceived by others. She’s aware of the multifaceted nature of personality, though, and so she conjures up two other selves, parts of her own psyche, with whom to explore this slippery landscape.
The Writer herself seems to be an experienced author with decades of work behind her. But from within, she finds a younger version of herself, rather sharper and more cynical. She also pulls out a much more public persona, the mask she puts on for interviews. A male figure, this one – The Writer understands that, like Tiresias, we all have both female and male in our makeup. ‘A Remarkable Person’ could be seen as a piece of Absurd Theatre, and the three embark on a jumpy journey through the highways and back-alleys of identity – from TV studio to psychiatrist’s couch.
The Writer has come up with the concept of ‘façadomania’, or maybe ‘façade-o-mania’ – the obsession with creating a perfect image of oneself to present to the outside world. Although in reality, of course, it’s the writer Pernille Johnsen who’s come up with the word, and ‘A Remarkable Person’ is a fascinating and perceptive examination of the concept. It’s interesting that this play is written in the age of Facebook – social media are the perfect arena for façadomania (although the piece doesn’t seem to mention them).
The younger woman is concerned with the status that’s given by the outward appearance of things, and how they are presented. It’s not enough just to have a Buddha in your home – how can you show that it’s actually from Cambodia? But making too much of that authenticity labels one as crass, so – “How to convey that it’s authentic, without revealing that you want to convey that it’s authentic?”
Similarly, she considers that – “The function of the home is to create a portrait of the owner”. The possessions, the décor, the furnishings, become a catalogue where we can read the status of the person who chose them. As I listened to that line I thought of my own bookshelves at home. Obviously, this goes for creative endeavours like writing, too. As I said at the start – maybe the real reason I’m writing this review is much more about me – my own status and self-image.
With the male facet of her personality, The Writer explores how we deal with our public life, how we try to assert status while remaining engagingly modest. They play out an hilarious interview, where the author (presumably The Writer at an earlier stage of her career) claims to feel ‘humble’ at having been given success with his (her) latest book. The interviewer asks – “Isn’t the fact that you’re good, the reason for your success”. Inwardly, of course the author agrees, but he responds – “That’s for others to judge”. That sounds self-deprecating enough for the interviewer to refer to the book as an ‘overnight success’, whereupon the author snaps back testily – “Not overnight!. I’ve worked for years on that book!”
Façadomania. How finely we need to judge our approaches and responses in our interactions with others! Each statement that we give out elicits a reply, whose meaning must in turn be dealt with by our next offering. They reflect off each other like a fairground mirror-maze.
It’s impossible to have even a simple conversation without advertising some feature of our personality –
“I went on a fantastic skiing trip”
– Look how fit I am.
“I just wanted to get out in the wind”
– Look at the contact I have with nature.
“We should teach children about façadomania; they shouldn’t waste their lives trying to impress others”
– Look what a caring mother I am.
And so on. That thought about wasted lives crops up again near the end, when a session with a psychologist reveals to The Writer a sad truth about the human condition – that people who don’t learn to love themselves at an early age, seldom manage to find love for themselves as adults, either.
The three actors – writer Pernille Dahl Johnsen as The Writer, and Kristine Myhre Tunheim and Espen Oestman as her alter-egos, conjured up a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, moving around Ingvill Fossheim’s set as they visited different times and locations from The Writer’s memory and imagination. The set itself was an arrangement of wooden structures, suggestive somehow of a landscape of shattered monoliths, and at the close they underwent a totally unexpected transformation into something much more coherent and – stony.
‘A Remarkable Person’ is a remarkable piece of theatre –
Minimal. Disturbing. Unforgettable.