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  • Chris O'Rourke

Act


Elaine O'Dwyer and Kyle Hixon in Act. Image Wen Driftwood

****

Playwright Lars Norén, who died in 2021 from COVID, is less known in Ireland than in his native Sweden or mainland Europe. Act, from 2000, making its debut at Glass Mask Theatre, suggests the loss has been ours. Set in Germany and showing hints of Kafka meets Death and the Maiden, Act sees a torturer and hunger striker come face to face in a prison interrogation. What that yields is a tricky affair. Norén’s script being barley a device, even less a narrative, to facilitate abstractions being discussed and declaimed. It might be tempting to draw your own conclusions, and Act welcomes that to a point, inviting generalised speculation on gender for example. But Act is framed within definite parameters. The dishevelled clues coming early and continuously: accountability for Auschwitz, Simone Weil, chicken farmers and concentration camps, women terrorists and women as terrorists. Addressing the end of World War Two to the late nineties, this is Germany confronting its past, whether it wants to or not.

Kyle Hixon and Elaine O'Dwyer in Act. Image Wen Driftwood


Its arrival in 2000 is timely. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reopened old stories many Germans sought to forget, as did the rise of Holocaust deniers. Self awareness not being a national attribute in post WWII Germany. The anonymous autobiography A Women in Berlin (1954), which described the horrors German women endured under Russian occupation after the fall of Berlin was reviled in Germany, deemed an insult to German womanhood. More likely it insulted the returning men who couldn’t protect them from rape and coerced prostitution. Like Europe’s six million jews, Germany simply didn’t want to know. Women doubly victims now that returning men took back the roles women had filled in their absence. Many slipping free of their swastikas more from convenience than conviction. It would take a generation or more before Germans finally slipped free from the shadows of their parents. German youth sometimes seeking change via terrorism, such as the Baader–Meinhof Group, which saw itself as attacking fascist German policies from the 1970s onward, only disbanding in 1998, a decade after the Cold War ended. Like women during WWII, women terrorists played an active role. This time refusing to be silenced or made into second class citizens.

Kyle Hixon in Act. Image Wen Driftwood


All of which informs Act, which director Johan Bark manages brilliantly, for the most part. If his choreographed compositions keep the traverse visually energised, it can become a blur of visual and verbal white noise at times. Kicking off like a Formula One Grand Prix, things launch explosively and keep going without so much as a pit stop. The result, two breathtaking performances by Elaine O’Dwyer and Kyle Hixon. Which could have been contenders for performances of the year had they been guided to slow down taking the curves and corners. Bark feeling the need for speed even when speed isn’t needed, sacrificing rhythm for pace. A loss forced home by moments which hold speed to account. O’Dwyer’s silent, soulful eyes saying so much when simply listening. Complimenting her Exorcist crab and superb gestural and expressive body language.

In contrast, silence is not in Hixon’s character’s repertoire. Indeed, speech is his way to shut out silence for fear of hearing what he doesn’t want to hear. If Hixon handles this admirably, speaking initially as if trying to stick to a script that O'Dwyer’s character insists on straying from, his clipboard a shield to protect him from real encounter, Hixon lifts the roof when he finally puts his shield aside for a high octane and hugely menacing monologue. If O'Dwyer plays sex as power, Hixon knows information is the real power. And if the prisoner is under the illusion they’re in charge, they can think again. Hixon dropping the scripted life to reveal the fury that fuels it, leading to one of the most extraordinarily inventive uses of a belt as prop to be seen anywhere. Hixon bringing it home with an utterly compelling performance.

Kyle Hixon and Elaine O'Dwyer in Act. Image Wen Driftwood


Where does Act take us? Norén’s smarter than to pretend to see the end of the journey, content to take us as far as the next stop rather than a satisfying ending. Perhaps sensing the fork in the road as questions about national identity inform the twenty-first century. Knowing that if we don’t face our history, as much of Europe has refused to do, we are destined to repeat it. The signs already in evidence. Knowing, too, that healing arises from sorrow, acknowledging our mistakes, before letting go. Denial not an option as German youth are no longer satisfied with half truths. One thing is clear, Act bombards you with thoughts and images that keep you on your feet. Explosive, exhilarating, Act is grown up theatre that asks difficult questions, whether you like them or not. Prepare to be entranced by a striking production with two mesmeric performances from O'Dwyer and Hixon.

Act, by Lars Norén, directed by Johan Bark and presented by Glass Mask Theatre, runs at Glass Mask Theatre until May 20.


For more information visit Glass Mask Theatre

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