La Veillée, Théâtre de la Bastille, Paris

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It starts with mum’s freshly cremated ashes in an urn on the coffee table and ends up with them all over the floor. Yep, this is another homely tale of a family disembowelling itself on stage. This time the playwright tugging skeletons half out of cupboards is not Albee or Strindberg but fellow Swede Lars Norén, whose mix of bleakness and black humour finds a fine outlet in this production.

Directors Pierre Maillet and Mélanie Leray of the Luciole Company cock a playful snook at the clichés of dramatic realism. The 1970s sitting room comes complete with three-piece suite ripe for confrontation, but the backdrop is a crazy mirror distorting bodies beyond recognition. Childhood photos glare, not smile, from the walls. Psychologist John stares in darkness at a spotlit goldfish bowl as he phones his young daughter by a first marriage, only to leave the phone off the hook to force her to listen to adult worlds imploding. Marital meltdown becomes positively suffocating after the arrival of estranged brother Alan and wife Monica. Fittingly, Dallas – that classic portrayal of extravagant self-destruction – blares in the background.

Maillet and Leray also disconcert with their approach to Norén’s acutely rendered dialogues. Most of this production is so softly spoken that it turns the concept of public performance on its head and transforms the audience into straining trespassers on squalid private property. But just as the long, long silences and sometimes sluggish pace begin to drag, conflict erupts, because another of Norén’s strengths is his variation of rhythm and perspective to undermine our assumptions and reopen our doubts. Here, the inventive staging is every bit as adroit as the text, keeping us guessing visually and musically until we’re as confused as those crazy mirror images.

Sadomasochistic mind games such as these need evenly balanced and intelligent performances. Pierre Hiessler’s John has a dangerous intensity and laconic cruelty, contrasted with Vincent Voisin’s Alan, a walking chip-on-the-shoulder brimming with resentment. Leray plays a whippet-thin Charlotte, quivering with sexual frustration and teetering on the brink of collapse. Valérie Schwarcz’s Monica is a comic marvel of appeasement and sexy wide eyes.
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