Last year Volcano Theatre Company toured a physically intense deconstruction of The Communist Manifesto. Now, once again under the direction of choreographic pervert Nigel Charnock, they have turned their attention to the works of Henrik Ibsen.
At times the material bears as much relation to the gloomy Norwegian as a packet of mixed nuts does to the government's Care in the Community programme. Seldom does an entire scene appear uninterrupted; more often they are cut up, interposed upon one another, scratch-mixed together. The opening sequence, as the company of four builds a sparse chamber setting on the stage, is a four-way argument consisting of contradictory opening stage directions, as each performer bids against the others to define what the hell is going on.
The entire assemblage is founded on the belief that Ibsen's characters "are passionately driven, if not determined, by their sexual dreams and desires." Thus, his texts – which are themselves delivered in melodramatic parody – become pretexts for the vigorous physical encounters which more directly enact the alleged fervours. Yet, through the first half of the show, Volcano mostly draws audience responses of indulgent bewilderment: individual moments get laughs, but no larger fabric is properly visible.
This emerges piecemeal over the final 45 minutes. A definite break from Ibsen is made when Jane Arnfield and Fern Smith embark on a girlish discussion of the relative merits of their male colleagues. From this point onwards the sexual quadrilateral of the cast's affections come to dominate the proceedings: English-rose Arnfield obsessively pursues Paul Davies ("He touched me 576½ times today") whilst Richard Ryder struts a heavily copulatory tango with the more sinister, barking Smith.
Amid these shenanigans, chunks of Ibsen gradually begin to re-emerge, at first as passing jokes (most daftly when the end of Ghosts intrudes on Arnfield's astonishing Tourette-like outburst – "I want to catch every venereal disease under the sun!... The sun!... The sun!"), then performers jump tracks in the middle of a heated exchange into a scene from Little Eyolf or When We Dead Awaken, so adroitly that one only realises a couple of minutes down the line that they have returned to their source material.
In this way, the passions of the present come to be illuminated by the texts from a century ago: rather a cheat in terms of proving the company's thesis, but both visually and intellectually entertaining. Volcano's deconstructions do not always stand up by themselves, but are consistently impressive in the manner of the best architectural follies.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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