By: Victoria Benedictsson
Directed by: Paul Miller
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Tuesday 21st August 2007
This was a less than thrilling afternoon’s entertainment, which left me hoping the problems with the play were partly down to the adaptation, although I suspect they’re more fundamental than that.
The basic story is simple. A Swedish woman, who has lost her family through illness and death, has herself been ill and is recuperating in Paris, tended by some compatriots she’s met there and who live in the same building. She’s already keen on a particular sculptor and when he arrives, she’s drawn into a destructive relationship, from her point of view. He seems quite happy with the arrangement, confusing free love with consequence-free sex, as many do. She ends up killing herself by jumping fully clothed into the Seine – in those outfits, any woman would sink like a stone in seconds.
I found it hard to relate to these characters. The woman herself, Louise, seems to be a loser through and through. We don’t really get to see what she was like before, although people keep mentioning how she’s changed, and she doesn’t do anything – no hobbies, no work, nothing. What does she do all day? She’s a cipher, so perhaps it’s not surprising she falls for someone who simply wants to use her to fuel his art.
The sculptor is also an enigma – I couldn’t get any real sense of his personality, just his behaviour, and that’s not enough to keep me interested for this long. The other characters in Paris were drawn equally crudely; the step-brother, the woman artist who’s nursed her and who was the sculptor’s previous great love (coincidence, eh?), her husband, and her sister(?) who’s in love with the step-brother. If this sounds confusing, it’s because none of this was introduced as clearly as I would have liked.
Back in Sweden, there were more characters, and this was the most entertaining bit of the play. The housekeeper, Botilda, is a cheerful soul, who can’t see why anyone goes to Paris since they’re all so gloomy when they come back! She has some lovely lines. There’s also a mother and daughter who give us a glimpse of the middle-class Sweden that the author knew only too well, and was presumably avoiding. This daughter is also keen on the step-brother, entertainingly so, but no chance. Finally, there’s an older man, the bank manager, who’s been keen on Louise since she was twelve, and who’s been proposing regularly to her for years. He offers her one final chance to snap him up, but she’s still too wrapped up in her passion for the sculptor to consider him.
All the actors gave good performances, and I don’t intend any criticism of them. I particularly liked Marlene Sidaway as Botilda and Niamh Cusack as Erna, the lady artist. At least she was playing a spiky character, which is so unlike most of the women in drama of this period. There were also physical problems, too. The set was as spread out as for The Five Wives Of Maurice Pinder, and the seats we had were poor. We were off to one side, but facing in to the centre of the stage, so that when anything happened on the part of the stage behind us, we were completely cut off from it. Unfortunately, this happened fairly often, so I felt rather detached a lot of the time. The theatre was also very stuffy during the first half, so I found myself nodding off a few times, especially as nothing much was happening on stage to keep me alert.
Steve described this afterwards as “a poor man’s Ibsen”, and that just about nails it. The writer herself had been shattered by finding that her lover, the leading arts critic of their generation who had fostered a regeneration of Scandinavian art, wouldn’t review her work because she was a woman! From what I can glean from the program notes, she wrote this, her one and only play, shortly before she killed herself in despair, and while suffering can inspire great creativity, it doesn’t seem to have worked here, partly because her characters are so empty (reflecting her own feelings, presumably), and partly because she didn’t have experience writing drama. It may be that another adaptation would bring out more of the original, but don’t hold your breath.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me