By Jon Fosse, translated by May-Brit Akerholt
So much can get lost in translation. The subtle nuances of a phrase often disappears when it has to speak in another voice from another civilisation where the resonances are different, the meaning never quite precise.
But not here, in May-Brit Akerholt’s rendition of Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s Beautiful. As Fosse’s official translator and a native speaker of Norwegian, Akerholt has a deep understanding of the text and brings its melancholy and hope alive for English-speaking audiences in what is a perfect translation of an almost perfect play.
There is a plot, but it’s as flimsy and ephemeral as the light on the windows of the boathouse on the edge of the Norwegian fjord where the play is set. A man (Jonathan Brand), his wife (Ling-Hseuh Tang) and their teenage daughter (newcomer Melissa Howard) come back to his home village for the summer, to stay with his mother (Margi Brown Ash). He meets up with an old school friend (welcome back Christopher Sommers), an old school friend who used to play in a band with him but who, since the age of fifteen, seemed to have lost his way in the world and remained in the village doing nothing.
The daughter meets a boy her own age (Kevin Spink) and young love blossoms. The wife seduces the friend, and eventually the married couple go home to the city leaving their daughter to stay with her grandmother and, we suppose, continue her first affair. The old school friend resumes his solitary existence, and the play ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
Those bare bones can say nothing about the many-layered nuances of this exquisite play. Mysteries are hinted at but not explained until the end, by which time they are totally unnecessary, as we’ve already worked everything out, so that the final scene is a clumsy synopsis rather than a resolution. I would have liked it to end with the married couple walking off to their car.
But apart from that one flaw, the structure of the play is a mirror of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, where themes arrive and then leave, are introduced and forgotten until they reappear, where pairings and motivations continually weave over and under each other like sunlight on water, and where the parts eventually make a perfect whole.
The text is simple to the point of sublimity, where the word unspoken is more eloquent than the hesitant phrases and stumbling monosyllables of the tongue-tied characters, for these are no self-confident Shakespearian heroes, but ordinary people playing out a timeless pattern of story almost against their will, forced to articulate things that they feel should remain unsaid. Christopher Sommers, as the mysterious almost sinister left-behind school friend, is the best example of this, and his triumph in this performance is to make his character almost seem like a bad actor who hasn’t learned his lines, until we notice the utter control he has over his movement and his voice. Stage presence doesn’t have to shout “Look at me acting!” – in this case, it’s all done by understatement.
Melissa Howard, in her debut role as The Girl, also has this instinctive stage presence. She’s like every hesitant teenager on the edge of sexual break-through, but her body language is more controlled, I think, than its raw innocence seems, and when she’s done more voice work, she’ll be a young actor to watch.
Ling-Hsueh Tang, as The Woman, her mother, is another very relaxed and perceptive actor, making the difficult change from irascible wife to flirtatious seducer in different scenes so easily that one thinks, at first, that she is playing two different women, and that this is a play within a play or else a dream sequence, so that it comes as a shock when we realise that the two characters are different manifestations of the one personality. Margi Brown Ash, in an impressive under-playing of the role of Grandmother, adds another dimension of this puzzle play, which is basically about who is doing what and why, and who knows, understands or cares.
It’s a gem of a play, as fragile and as multi-layered as a rose, and the sensitivity of the text, so elegantly translated by May-Brit Akerholt, is mirrored in a truly magical set, where the walls of the boathouse, especially under the lighting of the talented Jason Glenwright, echo the moods of the characters as well as the time of day. It’s a brilliant start for a new theatre company, and Andrea Moor can be very proud of her first show as a professional director.
Director: Andrea Moor
Designer: Kieran Swann
Sound: Jason Zadkovich
Lighting: Jason Glenwright
Audio-visual: Bec Paling
Playing 29 November – 8 December 2008; Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, Monday 3 December 6.30pm, matinee Saturday 8 December 2pm
Duration : 90 minutes, no interval