Swedish playwright Lars Norén cannot be accused of being a household name, yet this double bill of experimental shorts shows him to be a writer of the highest order. Drawing on the Anglo-Irish tradition of Beckett and Pinter and imbuing it with a deep sense of dread and the uncanny, this production showcases Norén as a master of unease and muted pathos. With big-name-director Anthony Neilson (The Prudes, Unreachable) delivering an ambitious staging, the evening really was something rich and strange.
Act opens on an interrogation room in a near-future USA in the midst of a second civil war. An obligatory Make America Great Again baseball cap and rumpled Confederate flag imply that Trump has sparked an all-out race war and sent America hurtling back into its sinister past. Norén originally intended the play to be set in West Germany in the 1970s; Neilson has taken some liberties with the text in his transposition of the action to a hypothetical USA that mostly pays off.
Barnaby Power plays a deranged white physician with a shaky Southern American accent, who is sent to medically examine Temi Wilkey’s unnamed black prisoner after she begins a hunger strike. The dynamic between the two is predictable. The doctor is sexually attracted to the prisoner and hates himself for it, describing her as “an animal”. The prisoner recognises that her humanity poses a threat to the doctor’s “whole personal and social existence”.
She’s also suppressing enormous guilt over the unknown atrocity which landed her in jail. “There was a war,” she repeats monotonously. Meanwhile Power chews the scenery, ranting incessantly to avoid the fact that the people he aims to repress are just like him. Wilkey, on the other hand, shows little life behind her character’s eyes in a performance which may be overly understated.
Norén’s brand of absurdism lacks the humour of Pinter and Beckett’s, although there are some delightful exchanges. “Every time I ask for water I get Coca Cola,” the prisoner complains. “Coca Cola is a very fine beverage,” the doctor rebuts. Both characters begin to suffer strange bouts of amnesia and hypnotically repeat sections of dialogue. Neilson does much with silence and the empty spaces on the mostly bare stage. Though perhaps stronger on atmosphere than substance, Act is a perplexing play which subtly casts its spell.
Terminal 3 is the stronger of the two pieces. Two couples are waiting in a hospital ward. The younger pair (Wilkey and Robert Stocks) await the birth of their first child; the older (Power and Hannah Young) are about to identify the body of their son. It’s unclear whether the two couples can see each other as there’s a gigantic translucent screen dividing them. At times they seem to be occupying the same space, at other times not.
The screen is a bold move from Neilson and designer Laura Hopkins. Fascinatingly, it renders one couple a ghostly, semi-visible presence depending on which side of the auditorium you happen to be sitting on. I identified much more with the younger couple by virtue of sitting on the left side of the stalls, but how would that experience have been different if I was sat on the right, or even in the balcony to see over the screen?
There’s a terrible bond between the two couples which is immensely satisfying when revealed. It’s a more straightforwardly intelligible piece than Act – one could say more human. In any case, the characters are much more fleshed out and sympathetic.
What really stands out, however, is the theatrical craftsmanship. The lighting and sound create a Lynchian sense of strangeness and unease. An aggressive smoke machine very literally illustrates our blindness to future tragedy and the frightful consequences our present actions might have. It could easily have come across as pretentious or heavy-handed, but it undeniably works. Neilson has created an abundance of memorable and poetic moments, preserving the slight chilliness within Norén’s text, yet imbuing it with heart-breaking tragedy.
Though both plays are only 45 minutes, they linger in the memory for much longer than their compact runtimes. After the somewhat ill-advised decision to write a play about the male response to the #MeToo movement with The Prudes, this double bill should put Neilson firmly back in critics’ good books. It’s also an urgent call to stage more Lars Norén plays in the UK. I know I’d be among the first to buy tickets if any more of this masterful writer’s work came to London theatres.
Act and Terminal 3 are playing at the Print Room at The Coronet until 30 June
Photo: Tristram Kenton