Britain doesn’t share a currency with the rest of Europe, nor – as this starry Euro-coproduction proves — does it share much of a theater aesthetic with it either. Staged by the legendary French theater and film helmer Patrice Chereau (La Reine Margot) and penned by the continent’s most produced playwright, the Norwegian Jan Fosse, prod is austere, poetic, and allusive — pretty much the exact opposite of the immersiveness and interactivity that is all the rage on today’s art-house UK stages.
Production opens with the character named the Other (Jack Laskey) holding the One (Tom Brooke), shirtless, emaciated, and shivering, in his arms for a solid minute. The stage (design by Richard Peduzzi) is covered with dirt and, in the center, a shallow pool of water. The One then stands and speaks: “I didn’t want to. I just did it.” So far, so gnomic.
After an exchange about the One’s undefined action and his difficulties relating to others and his environment, the two agree to set out to sea, and — coup de theatre, anyone? — a rectangular plinth on a hydraulic arm raises out of the water and becomes the representation of a boat, that rises, falls, and rocks hypnotically. Underneath Dominique Bruguiere’s flat white lights and against Eric Neveux’s quietly ominous score, the effect is strikingly beautiful.
They sail together, share a meal, a drink, and more pared-back dialogue about what we’re realizing is the One’s existential angst. This could be a story about suicide recalled by the person left behind; we could be locked inside two sides of a depressive personality; or (most likely) we could be being challenged to appreciate an aesthetic experience without being given the satisfaction of clear-cut answers.
Laskey and Brooke perform this cryptic task with total commitment. Simon Stephens’ version is crisp and culturally locationless (save one reference to a “wee dram”), as it should be for a production heading soon to Vienna, Paris, Lyon, Barcelona, and Avignon. A group of teenaged audience members had to be constantly shushed by their teacher, but the curtain call was greeted by whoops and cheers.
For an Anglo-American sensibility, this all feels frustratingly inconclusive, but the images haunt the imagination. Perhaps the most intriguing question is how continental critics and auds will receive something so seemingly echt-European that’s spoken in English.