Reviewed by Roz Carter
You would be hard pushed to find a play in the West End that makes you feel more like an intellectual than Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas, which is now playing at Wyhdham’s Theatre. Striking while the Scandinavian iron is still hot and the idea of surtitles still acceptable. Doktor Glas is a quietly brilliant, one man play about a Doctor who deliberates whether or not to murder a priest in order to stop the clergyman from continually raping his own wife.
Peder Bjurman and Krister Henriksson tread the fine line between the natural, everyday world Doktor Glas inhabits and the abstract thoughts in his head. Henriksson moves about the space with relative ease, with everyday restrained gesture pulling us back to Glas’ humanity, while passionate fits of rage are accompanied by abstract movement and twinges of the absurd.
Henriksson is exceptional. His voice lilts and swells, delicately guiding the audience through the story, while commanding their attention with the shrug of his shoulders. He subtly builds the tension with his restrained movements which makes his ultimate descent into moral dubiousness all the more sympathetic.
Linus Felbourm’s lighting design creates an eerily sterile effect, with the majority of the scenes lit in a way that reminds you of the first horrible rays of daytime that appear while you’re still tipsy on the night bus. This clinical atmosphere then melts away into rich blues and reds emphasising particular moments of tension and passion. The back wall becomes a canvas for this shift and Peder Bjurman’s sparse and icy set makes Glas seem more and more isolated as the play progresses.
But it’s in Swedish, how do you understand it I hear you cry! The surtitles projected onto the back wall allow the audience to understand what is happening but Henriksson’s comic timing and controlled gestures don’t need translation. While these work splendidly for the majority of the time, the balance between audience and actor does shift at times as comic line will be projected before Henriksson has said it meaning that the laugh backwardly comes before the line.
Similarly if your concentration is broken, even for a second, it can take a few moments to be absorbed back into the action. This especially happens when someone’s iPhone manages to go off in the middle of a particularly tense moment (to have your phone go off once can be seen as misfortune, twice careless, but three times and you really are asking for a lynch mob to chase you after the encore!)
The plot itself manages to be both vast in topic and small in action meaning towards the end of the play attentions do begin to wane. But judging by the standing ovation and rapturous applause at the end I was in the minority in this. This subtle drama is a cool slice of Sweedish minimalism that flirts with morality, murder and lust, leaving the audience with a delicious Scandinavian aftertaste.
Doktor Glas plays at London’s Wyndhams Theatre until 11th May. Click here for tickets.