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The Journey to Venice 

by on 3 March 2023

Travelling Hopefully

The Journey to Venice 

by Bjørg Vik, translated by Janet Garton

Anarchy Division at the Finborough Theatre, Earl’s Court until 25th March

Review by Patrick Shorrock

How to negotiate the challenges of living longer – failing health and memory, financial pressures, loneliness and isolation – has very much become a theme du jour, most prominently in Florian Zeller’s play The Father, which was filmed in 2020 with Anthony Hopkins.  Bjørg Vik’s play – fluently translated by Janet Garton – may be rather earlier (it received its premiere in 1992) but still feels very up to date. 

We see an elderly married couple Edith and Oscar Tellmann (Annabel Leventon and Tim Hardy) coping with unreliable memory, weakened bodies, inability to pay the bills, and dead children.  They do this by taking refuge in fantasy, in the form of imaginary expeditions to the places they have previously visited, without leaving their flat (designer Kit Hinchcliffe) which is haunted by the sound of numerous unseen cats and desperately untidy with its piles of books and burns in the carpet.   From time to time, an old fashioned film projector gives us views of the mountains and Venice on a conveniently white wall, sometimes with the assistance of an equally old fashioned tape machine, which provides musical accompaniment. 

Reality intrudes in the form of a plumber, Christopher (Nathan Welsh), who is thrown by the fact that they are dressed for an expedition to the mountains but are not intending to leave the house.  Once Christopher has been put to work, Edith reads aloud a racy extract from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to her husband (something of a favourite passage we are encouraged to infer).  They are interrupted by the arrival of a new cleaner, Vivian, (Charlotte Beaumont) who may be drunk or just utterly scatty, but is enthralled by D H Lawrence’s sexual frankness. 

Edith and Oscar  are very much part of the intellectual middle classes,  giving the cats the names of composers and operatic characters and talking about Cervantes and Dostoyevsky as though they were old family friends.  There is none of the supressed class conflict, embarrassment, or scratching at a Brexit itch that a contemporary English playwright would be inclined to home in on if this encounter with a plumber and cleaner were set in the UK.  (I suspect the Welsh or Scottish perspective would be different again.)  And this refusal to go for the obvious (from an English perspective) was perhaps the most subversive and refreshing thing about this short perhaps rather slight play (70 minutes without interval).   The importance of kindness and making connections and the positive effects of moderate indulgence in wine and fantasy are hardly earth shattering revelations, even if the play provides supporting evidence. 

Although supposedly Norwegian, there is a rather English vibe to this couple.  The ease with which they put on their shoes and socks rather destroys any sense of physical frailty or even vulnerability.  (They are refreshingly free of self-pity and the play refreshingly abstains from either sentimentality or Nordic angst.) Julian Starr’s unobtrusive but almost constant sound design did more to maintain the dramatic momentum than Wiebke Green’s direction.

Patrick Shorrock, March 2023

Photography by Simon Annand

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