Rosemary Branch Theatre, London N1
Opened 25 March, 2003

Norwegian-born director Terje Tveit is capitalising upon his ethnicity by staging a Scandinavian season at Islington's Rosemary Branch Theatre. Ibsen's Little Eyolf has just ended its run, and Strindberg's The Stronger and Miss Julie are shortly to enter repertoire alongside the current presentation, Axel And Bertha (Tveit's version of Strindberg's 1888 Kamraterna, more often rendered literally as "Comrades").

Axel and his wife Bertha are painters living in Paris. They compete for the honour of being hung in a prestigious salon's exhibition, commit indiscretions with other members of their tight-knit circle, and ultimately their rivalry explodes their marital and professional arrangement of solidarity.

It's often hard to reconcile the concepts of Strindberg and comedy, and unfortunately Dale Teater Kompani's production does little to ease matters along. Tveit's translation sounds overly literal, devoid of any colloquial zest: "You juggle your words for your own conversational amusement," one character is told, but it's hardly reflected in the script. To counteract this, he elicits a forced jauntiness of performance from his cast of six, backed too persistently by insouciant accordion recordings of chansons.

Paul Engers as narrator Carl goes one better than Roger Moore: in addition to left eyebrow raised and right eyebrow raised, he can also do both eyebrows raised. Indeed, quite a lot of eyebrow acting goes on. Xavier Williams as male model and would-be novelist Gaga exudes a low camp that begins to remind one of Morrissey. Stephanie Jory accentuates the scheming coquettishness of new neighbour Thérèse by giving her an exaggerated French accent which, curiously, no-one else in this version of Paris seems to share. Let's just say that Cleo Sylvestre's Abel is larger than life and leave it at that.

And of course the gloomy author can never quite allow humour to get the upper hand. His marrow-deep misogyny is always palpable amid the confusions and upsets here: it's obvious that the lion's share of blame for the marital break-up is Bertha's for not deferring to Axel. Tveit's stage design is similarly over-earnest, all hollow gilt frames which people constantly hang upon themselves or through which they peer or shimmy; it beats us over the head with ideas of appearance, limited perspective and the like. The combination of this Significant Imagery and everyone at once trying to be amusing and yet uttering every line as if it were profoundly meaningful threatens to lend the piece a different air of comedy from that intended: downright derision. The whole evening exhibits that marriage of high concept and low budget which is too often the undoing of post-student fringe companies.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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