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The title is as cryptic as the play. “Man without a goal” hardly seems to fit the lead character, visionary zillionaire Peter, who kicks off the play’s only real action: the supremely confident choice of pristine fjordland to build a city from scratch. Why? asks “Brother”. “Because it’s something that might not work” is the answer.

Simple piercing language, perverse undercurrents. Author Arne Lygre is Norwegian but don’t expect Scandinavian realism. The narrative peg gets swathed in enigma that throws pretty much everything into question. With nifty sleight of hand, Lygre compresses time, fast-forwarding us almost imperceptibly. Family members surface from spectral shadows and a nebulous past, unaware of each other’s existence, identified by labels not names. This is a scarily mechanical concept of relationships, as abstract as the money that proves their only link.

Lygre evokes virtual reality and random interchangeability by weaving “what if” into the concept of “playing” at being whoever you are. The only dead cert, halfway through, is that Peter, too busy instrumentalising others, has failed to escape terminal illness. Cue unsentimental deathbed rencontres in the hospital he built with the view he chose.

This is Lygre’s first showing in France, and guaranteed to get attention because veteran Claude Régy has the best pedigree of any French director for spotting new talent (Duras, Pinter, Bond, Kane, Fosse…). It’s easy to see why Régy plumped for Lygre. His hallmark – unvarying in recent productions, you can spot his style a mile off – is uncompromising minimalism demanding reverential concentration from the audience. Text becomes orchestral score rather than human canvas, denaturing speech tones and rhythms, all in ghostly lighting that plays tricks with ageing eyes.

Over two-and-a-half hours with no break, Régy’s chilly grey mantle starts to pinch. The early scenes have a hypnotic intensity centred on Peter, a powerful Jean-Quentin Châtelain with grating crow’s voice and mirthless laugh. Redjep Mitrovitsa excels as the increasingly sinister Brother and Bulle Ogier as the coldly sensual Wife. But the austere abstraction of the direction dulls the nuances of Lygre’s writing and the second half following Peter’s death feels fragmented rather than compelling.

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