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Relatively little known outside of Scandinavia, Lars Norén is nevertheless considered Sweden’s foremost living dramatist, his work harking back to predecessors like August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen and Hjalmar Bergman. Although primarily a playwright, Norén began his career as a poet. His 1963 début collection Syrener, Snö (Sirens, Snow) was hailed at the time for its psychedelic word-thronging. Sweden’s strong cultural and historical affinities with France are palpable in Norén’s poetry through the influence of French writers Henri Michaux and Raymond Roussel.
His major breakthrough as a dramatist came in the early 80s with Natten är dagens mor (Night is the Mother of Day) and Kaos är granne med Gud (Chaos is God’s Neighbour). Succès de scandale came with Norén’s 7:3 (1999) in which convicted murderers were given furlough from prison to act in the play. Most of the controversy came from the fact that the criminal actors were guilty of murdering two policemen and were able to voice their Nazi-inspired opinions on stage.
Norén’s plays tend to last several hours, making spectatorship a gratifying but also somewhat trying experience, especially given the troubled subject matter. At a mere two hours’ playing time, Demons still has time to make you run the whole gamut of human and animal emotions. If you’ve seen an Ingmar Bergman film (especially the ones in the vein of Scenes From a Marriage, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Roman Polanski’s recent film Carnage are all in the same family with Demons. Norén adds more physical and mental violence and a few hands-on, sexually-graphic scenes for good measure.
If you’re thinking of coming to Paris, it’s worth spending an evening at Le Lucernaire, a charming culture-complex which contains three cinemas, three theatres, a restaurant, a café, an exhibition space and a bookshop all miraculously packed into one quaint-looking Parisian building. The theatres are relatively small (though not minute), providing the thrill of cosy intimacy with the actors. Demons is currently being performed in the complex’s penthouse theatre that has a main gallery facing the stage; my two Brazilian friends and I were seated on a comfortable couch-bench directly on the stage itself, which gave us the feeling of being in a late Renaissance theatre where the upper classes were able to have close-up access on stage to see and be seen. The actors were so close to me on some occasions that during a particularly strenuous scuffle between the male actors, I was bracing myself for impact, hoping I wouldn’t be mangled or have to join in the fray.
The play’s in camera focus is on the emotional and sexual frustrations of two couples in a sitting room. There is no plot to speak of but the dialogue is vivid enough to keep your attention, not to mention the fact that there is a more than sufficient amount of sexualized horseplay and swinish behaviour to keep you lavishly entertained.
In the first moments of the play, as the semi-darkness lifts from the stage, a sleek, elegantly-dressed Swedish woman is lazing on a Scandinavian-looking white sofa. This is Katarina, Frank’s paradoxically frigid, sex-hungry wife. The realistic setting is offset somewhat by a strange seat that looks like a warpaint-covered toilet with stag antlers branching out of the top. It’s a good objective correlative for what happens during the play: realism throughout with occasional touches of the surreal. As a symbol, the designer horn-sprouting toilet symbolically foreshadows the broad-daylight cuckolding that takes place right next to spouses. It’s definitely a play in which hidden emotional defecation occurs not behind closed doors but in the middle of the living room in front of spectator guests. The play foregrounds the breakdown of boundaries between couples, between the real and the imaginary, the sane and the insane, love and hatred, the private and the public, the privates and the pubic.
From the very first moments, the spectator is privy to Katarina getting undressed in front of her husband down to bare breasts and knickers as she enters the shower. This provides an arresting kick-start to the play but has the unfortunate effect of lessening the shock for the spectator when Katarina later comes in bare-chested in front of the guests. Frank’s horrified reaction at this breach of etiquette seemed excessive (and also somewhat out of character for the coarse and brutally frank Frank). It would have been more effective to leave out the first nudity scene so that the spectator and the characters experience the shock of public nudity at the same time.
Another perhaps cavilling objection one might raise is that while the fisticuff struggles are particularly realistic, the sexual encounters are somewhat discordantly stylized. While there is an obvious need for ellipsis in these matters, some of the gestures were needlessly oblique. A recent production of Sarah Ruhl’s Appels en absence (Dead Man’s Cell Phone), also staged at the Lucernaire, was more convincing and refreshingly realistic in its tongue-on-tongue synecdochic dramatization of sex.
Norén’s take on the theme of love as a war of attrition is sufficiently imaginative to be memorable, and will seem strikingly new if one hasn’t seen the illustrious renderings of the subject by dramatists and filmmakers like Strindberg, Albee, Hjalmar or Ingmar Bergman. Norén’s use of interwoven and overlapping dialogue works well, the taunts of his characters are sadistically precise and the manipulation of props (a vase symbolising life and an urn its opposite) make the play visually arresting. Some things were also judiciously left in the dark: the exact nature of Frank’s neurotic tics, for instance, are left unexplained, even if the Bermuda triangle of his oedipal drives are strongly intimated.
Another of Norén’s interesting departures from his Swedish forefathers is the saving grace of dark comedy, and even if the topic of destructive relationships is arguably almost hackneyed, the experience of contemplating interior demolition is strangely cathartic. Although the play’s view of relationships is unremittingly bleak, it’s also a relief to feel that most of the sadism displayed comes more from emotional depravation than from childishness, boredom, habit, or an instinct for twisted pleasure, even if all of these ultimately factor in.
The actors’ performances were all outstandingly good. The actor playing Frank (Thibaut Corrion) had an almost frightening Viking intensity. Tomas (Xavier Bazin), the submissive, brow-beaten husband, was possessed of the funniest hen-pecked attitudes. His wife Jenna (Maud Imbert) played the infantile middle-class prude endearingly well and Katarina (Carole Shaal) was titillatingly hilarious as a frustrated wife turned vaginal hoover.
Demons continues at Le Lucernaire until July 4.