THE WETSUITMAN at the Arcola Theatre
“Without fanfare, it delivers a sensitive, real portrayal of grief, anger and loss.”
The Wetsuitman begins as a farce. The three actors metatheatrically ponder who their characters are to be, settling on caricatures from a send up of a Nordic Noir. In this, The Wetsuitman begins as one thing we think we know, so long as you religiously watched The Killing a decade ago. But by the final scene 80 minutes later, we are a world away from a comforting murder mystery and are forced to face the stark, human consequences of the alienation of refugees across Europe.
This is a true and extraordinary story, translated to stage with some brave directorial choices. The four scenes are almost better understood as vignettes, and while occasionally confusing, telling a story this vast with just three actors and three orange chairs on an otherwise bare stage is certainly an achievement.
The play, written by Freek Mariën and translated by David McKay, borrows heavily from an article by journalist Anders Fjellberg, published in Norwegian paper Dagbladet. Reading that piece this morning, I recognised many of the lines from the stage. These verbatim quotes give the play heart, with idiosyncratic comments and unfiltered observations that can be profound, prejudiced and humourous in turn.
Each scene, from bumbling detectives on a Norwegian coastline, to a mourning family in Syria, has a significantly different theatrical direction (Trine Garrett). The piece lends itself to this patchwork style, with no single character serving as an anchor throughout. However, this sometimes meant I had to keep checking my notes and the cast list to keep up. For example, in the second scene, the cast switches between fourteen different talking heads, many of which are simply credited as ‘another salesperson’. It’s not a surprise that some of these are more distinct than others.
The tone changes again in the third scene which is set in the Calais Jungle refugee camp and for the only time in the piece, the actors are amplified with microphones. Only their voices are used to guide the audience through the Jungle, as Nikiforos Fintzos’ sound and Amy Daniel’s lighting throughout is kept minimal. Bringing out the microphones felt like an unnecessary and fussy addition; I half expected they would augment singing, or some other vocal effects that never came.
All stagey conventions and tech fall away by the final scene, which features excellent naturalistic acting from the cast of three – David Djemal, Eugenia Low and Youness Bouzinab. Without fanfare, it delivers a sensitive, real portrayal of grief, anger and loss.
Throughout the piece, significance is given to the role of the press in homage to investigative journalists behind the The Wetsuitman article. It was journalists who managed to solve this missing persons case when the authorities in Norway, the Netherlands, France and the UK could not recognise a person who ‘officially was not even here’. This point is for the most part subtly made, as the play keeps journalists off-stage, with their interviewees and sources only portrayed. Only a couple of times does the writing lean towards a larger conspiracy of ‘threats’ hanging over characters who speak to the press. This feels like a detraction from otherwise fair criticism of the inadequacies and apathy within the official investigative forces.
The Wetsuitman is a piece that lends itself to reflection and concentration. Though it was hard to pick out all the details live, after going back to the source material I was struck by how much was faithfully packed into the play. It might not have needed all of this, but I am glad they tried.
THE WETSUITMAN at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed on 29th August 2023
by Rosie Thomas
Photography by Tim Morozzo
Previously reviewed at this venue: