FringeReview UK 2018
Fresh from his own Prudes at the Royal Court, Anthony Neilson directs his own versioning of Act as well as more straightforwardly Terminal 3, both translated by Marita Lindholm Gochman. Laura Hopkins’s sets – a grungy medical chamber in Act and notably for Terminal 3 an evanescent revolving screen with dry ice evocatively lit by Nigel Edwards here plays over a nightmare denying shade. Till june 30th.
Everything at The Print Room is worth seeing. That’s fast become an axiom. Beyond its magically shabby space the most consistently experimental and international theatre apparates in a solid black O opposite the old royal circle.
Lars Norén’s hailed as the greatest Swedish playwright since Strindberg. In an interview the 74-year-old Norén counters that Strindberg was mad, though ‘it was a kind of controlled madness he used as a tool.’ That’s not a bad description of Norén’s technique if not compulsion. Norén eschews story. Every time he feels one coming on he strips back till his words are liberated between ‘the described and the description.’ ‘Language’ he complains ‘is thinning out under the pressure of conformity.’ But we’re a lot more familiar with such conclusions as ‘The empty stage is sacred to me’. Beckett and Pinter – who were translated into Swedish early – are exemplars.
The Print Room here mount two of his short plays, with a interval totalling two hours.
Fresh from his own Prudes at the Royal Court, Anthony Neilson’s the kind of director to wrench one of these texts – one dating from the time of Bader/Meinhoff and the 1970s – into contemporary relevance. And make it strange. Laura Hopkins’ set uses the full grunge of the Coronet’s interior littered at the periphery by items like a chair with a Star and Stripes draped on it, various medical paraphernalia and office gear, and centrally a prisoner’s chair. Unpleasant items lie round, biding their time. Hopkins’ costumes deserve second takes: quasi fatigues for the prisoner M, a grubby off-white coat for G where peeps out below a bizarre set of leiderhausen with straps but without stockings. It looks like boys’ shorts. Nigel Edwards’ lighting here plays simply over a nightmare denying shade.
In effect Neilson Norénizes Act further. It was full of specific contemporary references and Neilson rejigs this version – by the premier Anglophone Norén translator Marita Lindholm Gochman. Neilson locates Act in a post Second US Civil War somewhere around 2065, where ‘Red’ right-wing southern states have been defeated by a left-leaning but now Fascistically acting North. That’s the theory. In effect it’s a Texan Trumpland with the two protagonists generating a meta-narrative – stories between the cracks, between the silences – that whatever Norén says do tell a story.
Act is both historic or mnemonic – what M’s perpetrated. And sets down the only meaningful encounter M will ever experience before a lifetime incarceration. The way their repeats and snatched-back reveals work is Beckettian, but the Birthday Party and general Pinteresque unreliability cut across it.
Temi Wilkey’s M has penetrated unspecific acts of terror. By the end it’s clear there’s a set of connections between her and Barnaby Power’s G, her Texan-twanging tormenter who both denies any personal interest in her, a mere physician, and his own sudden acts. As they almost literally circle each other, mainly G round the chaired M, he volleys forth disavowals and conflicting narratives. He’s been married five years but has a seven-year-old son. His wife’s alive and isn’t. His father died when he was twelve yet holds a large farm then snaps back to being dead when G was twelve. This instability seems at the limit of G’s conscious control. As an interogation technique it fails because M picks holes in its inconsistency. It torments but empowers her. Whatever Norén wishes, we construct a narrative from this Pinteresque variation on shimmering untruths.
There are reveals, as Norén proves in the very different Terminal 3. Wilkey’s vulnerable but spirited M and Power’s insinuating, threatening and mendacious G generate a fine tension and the new scenario’s believable – and what we’re given as backdrop flits in and out as narrative construct. Norén isn’t as mysterious on this evidence as we’re led to believe. M continually harks back to Paris intellectual stimulus an a lover. G wants to prove she fist had sex at twelve on Crete. G wants to conclude and continually avows they’ll never meet again, even pronounces on other people known to her. The way this cuts it’s clear we’re in a kind of Huit Clos. There’s no true closure for either.
Terminal 3 is as it were pure Norén, who’s famed for politically edgy plays but also the dispossessed in spirit or socially deprived. Two couples, Power, Wilkey, Robert Stocks and Hannah Young, arrive in a place full of dry ice periodically pumped out with a revolving transparent screen straked with lighting as they perceive each other dimly across the divide. It’s a stunning set and Hopkins has been given here the licence to create something this space invites, and leaps at it.
Both couples are waiting, Wilkey and Power for her to give birth, Stocks and Young to identify their dead nineteen-year-old son. They’ve not seen each other for perhaps seventeen years; Young’s Woman left Stocks’ Man to return to the city she felt at home in. He preferred the country. You soon realise that Stocks’ He is as subliminally sexist as Power’s Man is rueful over his past assumptions. Wilkey remarks on how old the other couple look to be approaching the maternity wing (they’re not that old in this casting, but that’s not important).
The sexual politics sashays between a not quite reconstructed male and a lot wiser one. The women are clearer, Wilkey’s as yet unable to articulate her unease, Young more resolved.
There’s a meta-narrative you can guess. More immediately the way Power and Stocks emulate a truculent attendant when each couple have lost their way is a neat twinning of the same character’s nasal nonchalance. Each stands at the edge of the now end-on screen in a fug and direct the errant couples as they make their way to the right maternity or mortality chambers. In the latter Young has already lit a set of candles. The explosive response and sudden reveal of the last chamber is breathtaking, as are the details. Most of all though Yung’s and Power’s harrowing reactions.
Whilst Act’s update is convincing I wonder if the original was more potent and real for its 1970s audience. A very few people wrong-headedly left after it, missing what was in effect the jewel. The full Norén emerges in this study of two couples at starkly binary stages revolving around a child. He manages it with a clinical compassion and refusal to either indulge or flinch. It’s a compelling must-see production, where everything – set, actors, script – come mesmerizingly and painfully together.