Every so often, a little gem of theatre comes along into your life and blows you away – or, at least, diminishes your ability to think about anything else for a few moments after the show ends. This is exactly the case with York Theatre Royal and Company of Angels’ new co-production of Ingmar Villqist’s new play Helver’s Night, translated by Jacek Laskowski.
Helver’s Night centres around two characters: Helver (Adam Venus), a young man obsessed with the hype and glory of the fascist movement, and his adoptive mother Carla (Kate Lynn Evans). The action takes place in Carla’s crumbling house when Helver comes back from a raucous fascist parade that’s been getting out of hand. He excitedly demands to teach Carla the ways he’s been taught during the movement, often resorting to violence and iron will to bend her to his bidding. As Helver gradually calms down – and the action outside heats up – we learn more about the backstory of these two characters whose lives we seem to have walked in on. We learn that Helver was adopted by Carla after her own marriage failed when she gave up her daughter, and it’s clear to see how these previous events have shaped their lives. Sadly, just when we start to empathise with them, the fascist storm outside rages on, and it isn’t long before we’re separated from these rich characters – which makes everything all the more poignant.
Alright, so Helver’s Night – like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal earlier this season – isn’t exactly the biggest barrel of laughs, and it tackles some pretty dark themes and contains some sinister images. But this is what makes it such an interesting play, and it’s the way that it’s produced and written that sparks this intrigue. You want to know more about the characters, and about what’s going on in the outside world – but before you can accomplish these quests for knowledge, the play quickly halts them and leaves you wanting more.
Venus and Evans are stunning as the two characters that bring this neat and tidy little play to life. They’re a formidable team who carry the play’s themes and drive its plot, along with your intrigue in their back stories and true desires. They shed light on dark concepts and ideas that haven’t been forgotten since the day they emerged in the First World War, and make them fresh and relevant in the world we live in today.
The tidiness of the play is also down to its set, which doesn’t hinder it or distract you from the characters. Instead, it causes you to focus on them and Villqist’s dialogue, which richly conveys the emotional mindsets of the characters. The light slices through the thick smoke that gradually fills the Studio Theatre in which this tiny play sits, and dark crimson fires dance on the house’s windows as tumultuous banging and clattering threateningly brings you to your senses. Upon entry into the venue, a fascist soldier gave me, and other audience members, a green beret to wear throughout the performance. It’s little touches like this that cleverly get you thinking before the play even starts, and it immerses you in a world dominated by iron totalitarianism and fear.
Everything’s been nearly tied together in this production, and I’m pleased to report that Helver’s Night gets the balance between, well, everything, just about right. It doesn’t try to be too clever, nor is it mind-numbingly bland – it’s just right. It’s a satisfying, well-crafted play, and it deserves attention and intrigue.
Helver’s Night is at York Theatre Royal until 8 November. For more information and tickets, see the York Theatre Royal website. Photo by Sam Atkins.