[A Doll’s Hell]
“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.
Like A Doll’s House‘s Nora, Close City‘s Annika (Sheena Irving) is trapped within the walls of stifling domesticity, watched over by a patronising husband (Jeff Szusterman) and pestered by her children. But, while both plays share a similar yearning for escape, the similarities end there. Where Henrik Ibsen painted a decidedly naturalistic portrait, Marius Ivaskevicius is unashamedly absurd.
Unlike Nora, Annika is unable to truly break free from the reins of her marriage. Instead she resorts to short train rides from Malmo to Coppenhagen as a reprieve from her everyday life. The entire basis of Close City hinges on her inability to choose between the two cities and how it cuts in her two. Each trip merely forces her deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her psyche and sexuality, suggesting that exploration and self-discovery might not always be such a good thing.
That’s not to say it’s merely a bleak portrait of a woman’s downfall. On the contrary, the play is often incredibly funny and delightfully surreal, leaving plenty of room for surprises. The plot, for one thing, never moves in any expected manner, and dialogue is filled with entertaining non-sequiturs. The eccentric characters from Copenhagen, Birgit (Emma Newborn) and Lars (Daniel Watterson), also offer many laughs (among other things). Watterson is particularly good, playing the classy male prostitute with ease. And back in Malmo, Szusterman as husband Svante, has perfected the art of condescending creepiness and needy desperation.
Running parallel to Annika’s story are also the discomforting interactions between a grotesque Swedish caricature named Carlsson (Thomas Sainsbury) and a twisted version of The Little Mermaid (Lucy Suttor). Sainsbury is the only performer to adopt a European accent for his role which, while occasionally overdone, fits with the the heightened world that he and Suttor inhabit. Though more could be done to connect this parallel story to the main plot, it offers a series of startling images as well as underlining themes of sexual violence.
Upmost commitment to the reality of the characters’ situations is demanded by the production, and every cast member delivers, but it’s Irving who has the toughest job as Annika. While she conveys the character’s curious innocence sublimely, the depths of the character remain obscured. To Irving’s credit this feels intentional, that Annika is an enigma not only to others but to herself too.
If it occasionally feels cramped in the Basement Studio with the entire cast onstage at all times, director Egle Simkeviciute Kulvelis handles this well. The three worlds of the play breathe alongside each other, carefully sharing the same space without ever drawing too much attention away from the main action. The uncredited set design, which is little more than a black box, is functional, but succeeds mostly thanks to Amber Molloy’s versatile lighting, sound effects by Mark Vorstman and music by Simona Minns.
Those with any qualms about portrayals of sexual violence on stage should be warned that this play has multiple occurrences of it, some literal and some symbolic, all of which are equally hard to swallow. Many will find these moments gratuitous, but Ivaskevicius’ refuses easy moralising, instead choosing to excavate the tricky grey areas that others might deem problematic.
Close City presents a compelling canvas of hidden desires and the impossibility of freedom. While the message seems somewhat pessimistic, it’s presented less as a cautionary tale and more as a modern fairytale nightmare. Never boring and highly provocative, this is an entertaining and rarely seen European play with a talented cast and crew behind it.
Close City is presented by Paper Plane Factory and plays at The Basement until 17 Sept. Details see The Basement.