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FringeReview UK 2023

The Journey to Venice

Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre

Genre: Drama, European Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Finborough Theatre


Low Down

Wiebke Green possesses the measure and tempo as well as delicacy of Bjorg Vik’s work. An exquisite gem worth seeing more than many larger, longer, louder shows.

Written by Bjorg Vik  Translated by Janet Garton. Directed by Wiebke Green, Set and Costume Designer Kit Hinchcliffe, Lighting Design Martha Godfrey, Lighting Assistant Ashe de Waal, Sound Design Julian Starr, Set & Costume Design Kit Hinchliffe, Props Assistant Em Tanner, Stage Manager Alexandra Kataigida

Promotional Photography Petra Eujane, Simon Annand

Till March 25th


It’s taken till now to bring the 1992 Ibsen Prize-winning The Journey to Venice to a UK stage: at the Finborough, directed by Wiebke Green. The best-known dramatic work of Bjorg Vik (1935-2018) – also famed as novelist, short-story-writer and founder of a feminist magazine – it’s a beguilingly intricate, achingly affirmative work. Played all over Scandinavia it’s typical the Finborough should premiere it here. Admittedly at 75 minutes it’s short, if packed. And double-bills are rare.

In the face of incipient dementia for one of them, Edith (Annabel Leventon) and Oscar Tellmann (Tim Hardy), now in their eighties embark on journeys from their living-room, in Kit Hinchcliffe’s traverse set. It’s a space of genteel decline, book-crowded bureau one end with table and chairs, the other a sofa and lamp. Books and bills jostle latterly with dishes, glasses, cups of wine. Walls ghost where paintings hung. The magnolia carpet’s stained with cat and mouse. Martha Godfrey’s lighting suffuses minor-watt living till bright spots emerge.

And there’s a projector for those journeys. It’s specifically March 25th, in the late 1990s for a reason (Vik thrust it a few years into the future, though you’d not guess). They’re going to the mountains, Peer Gynt’s hut, via a train journey bringing sandwiches and raincoats. The journey’s enacted, to the startling mew of offstage cats – the whole local population has slunk into residence including Tosca (opera really does sidle in later). “Animals” they improvise. Julian Starr’s unobtrusive sound extends to the video design, expressed as that aged projector.

Leventon’s terraced expressions are sovereign and beautifully understated:  from concern, to veiled management (the grim bills, those missing paintings and rose chest) to a flash of her youth, to grieving memory and flare-ups of sexual jealousy, tremulous with sudden suspicion. It’s there too in the way Leventon calibrates her voice, both somehow underpinning Hardy’s leonine growl yet deftly nudging it to safety.

This isn’t just a play about memory, and holding to it. Vik skilfully reveals how fresh sight of the past causes resolutions, uncertainties. And the erosion of their living standards continually laps at both: to the distress of Oscar who feels guilt as his meagre pension; and coping of Edith, flecked with the knowledge of childlessness to isolate them further. Above all though, this is a paean to love, caught with miraculous sidelights as one echoes the other’s shout in an imagined mountain.

Hardy’s twinkling ghost of a charmer delights in modulations: vocally like a cello. Hardy’s thick hair and beard suggest a fjord-roving sensibility crossed by fate: anxiety, lapping confusion, yet memory for whole long poems when guided gently, cusps the edge of identity. Vik skirts the incipient loss of more than details or short-term blanks. And Hardy’s Oscar convincingly shows he has grasp enough too to detect truths being withheld. Again this isn’t the dementia sometimes depicted: it’s incipient, just fraying, something both throw their resources into fighting. “I’ve finally got to the age when I hear what I want to hear. Often I think that I’ve heard more than enough already” Oscar declares. But has he?

Translated with natural rhythm and pace by Janet Garton, the seventy-five-minute four-hander springs surprises in both narrative and technique, enfolding a younger pair into an unscripted fiction with singular results. Indeed other fictions enrich it. Edith’s reading The Idiot seems part of the first journey. And that’s when the first of these booked-but-forgotten visitors – plumber Christopher Karlsen (Nathan Welsh) – breaks into their world and is momentarily thrown. At first matter-of-fact, Christopher’s gradually drawn in, as he has to return for parts, for an increasingly complex job that’ll need radical fixing. And to negotiate cats reluctantly. Welsh modulates winningly from cheerful nonchalant to fully engaged, springing at least two coups of his own. Welsh too has blossomed as a comic actor since his last work with Green, in the brief Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes at the Orange Tree.

As the pair embark for a second journey their new unmet carer/helper (and cat-lover) Vivian Sunde (Charlotte Beaumont) arrives, giving off a manic happy-go-lucky vibe that seems faintly unhinged, not least to the couple. Vivian crashes into things, is surprised as Edith reads her next volume, as they journey to Venice: hats, glasses of wine and cheese in the making. Vik’s known for exploring eroticism from a feminist perspective: here she refracts it with wry comedy. As Edith is egged on to resume reading by Vivian, the latter startles into more cleaning mishaps as details of Lady Chatterley’s Lover emerge.  “English” explains Edith. Beaumont’s energised Vivian is by turns edged with danger and cheeriness. Beaumont moves her character to a kind of release through superbly-observed sashays, swivels pratfalls and confidences.

You’d think the younger two might find it difficult to negotiate this shadow-invoked world, even comprehend it: an infinitely tender rearguard action of Edith’s against ex-lecturer and under-appreciated academic Oscar’s approaching dementia. As we proceed however, and Christopher’s inveigled into donning a gondolier’s hat, drinking rosso and pronouncing Italian, the last thing you’d expect is his fluent rendering of the Duke’s Aria from Rigoletto: still sporting his new U-bend. A cappella singing though is how he met his wife. And Christopher wields a generous surprise of his own at the end. That’s despite the perils of being momentarily identified as someone else who day it is.

Vivian’s own past is eased unbidden from her; again you recognise Beaumont’s truth, the slight shudder of recall, memory she too won’t dislodge. What these journeys bring is an unlooked-for epiphany in each, even future friendship as a joyous quartet contemplate St Mark’s. The end though, is clear-eyed as Oscar recites the end of a poem Edith and he know the plangency of. Nearly all the quartet have experienced profound grief; not all have to face the dark yet.

Green possesses the measure and tempo as well as delicacy of this work, Vik’s best-known play. Vik’s ground-breaking fiction at least ought to be better-known. An exquisite gem worth seeing more than many larger, longer, louder shows.