By Hjalmar Söderberg
Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2H 0DA
Until May 11
A one-man show in Swedish with English surtitles may not be normal West End fare, but this transfer from Sweden’s National Theatre is a testament to the diversity of London’s theater scene.
The reason it’s here is Krister Henriksson, who is the star of the highly acclaimed Nordic Noir police drama Wallander, a show which has been such a hit with British TV audiences that they remade it, keeping it in Sweden and starring Kenneth Branagh.
Henriksson, one of Sweden’s most respected actors, makes his West End debut with this adaptation of an acclaimed 1905 short novel by Hjalmar Söderberg. The novel took the form of a journal, written over a sultry summer, with the protagonist, a respectable physician, recounting how he fell madly in love with a patient, the beautiful wife of a corrupt and repulsive clergyman. When she confides in him that her marriage is making her miserable he agrees to help her out, with fatal consequences. He soon finds himself torn between his passion and his professional ethics.
Sir Ralph Richardson famously defined acting as “the art of stopping people coughing” and here Henriksson held a very mixed audience totally rapt for the 90-minute duration. No coughs, and amazingly no iPhones. It’s theater at its simplest, an actor alone on a stage telling a tale, and it works.
The hangdog expression and quiet intensity which are Henriksson’s screen trademarks are also to the fore here. Alternately gruff and poetic, his Glas is steeped in philosophy and always keeps a cyanide pill at hand. His vivid descriptions of the grotesque pastor Gregorius, who demands his “physical rights” off poor Helga, are wonderfully conveyed and the doctor’s initial solution involves a medical excuse for her to escape the old man’s advances. But soon matters get out of hand.
Allan Edwall’s adaptation is striking in that it manages to retain the textures of a novel, but it is Henriksson’s skill as an actor which gives it momentum. He has a great voice and invests the piece with just the right degree of dramatic intensity. Purists might baulk at his use of a face mic, but it is justified here, as it adds to the intimacy of the performance and helps draw us in.
Henriksson co-directed it with Peder Bjurman, who also designed. While his set for the doctor’s surgery might first seem bare and forbidding, when it’s enhanced by Linus Fellbom’s clever and subtle lighting, it becomes a painterly canvas that effectively charts Glas’s changing moods and inner struggles.
The doctor’s concern that he cannot step in to save a woman whose life is being made a misery is a very modern one, and the novel’s interest in exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois life has strong echoes of Ibsen. The piece is in no way a polemic though and Glas’s mordant observations and, yes, even wit (Nordic gloom is a stereotype) give the piece a strikingly modern tone. It’s a small, quiet, unassuming triumph.