Anja Suša | Boys Trapped in the Playroom
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18 May Boys Trapped in the Playroom

Director Anja Susa’s production of portrays violence with electrifying acting and a steady gaze at the audience. Backa Theatre takes a bold step forward writes Lis Hellström

Backa Theatre by Simona Semenic
translation to Swedish: Lucia Cajchanová and Henrik Dahl
Direction: Anja Susa
Scenography and costumes: Helga Bumsch
Actors: MH, GJ, JN, SS, ES
Musicians: SA, AB, DE, MN, BS
Plays through May 25th

The Reviewer
LHS has been a dance and theatre critic at GöteborgsPosten (The Gothenburg Mail) for many years. Her most recent review was of Israel Alonis’ and Lee Brunner’s dance performance Sod at Atalante (GöteborgsPosten, 15 March 2012).

The Subject
Backa Theatre’s production of Simona Semenic’s play – about five boys who become superheroes and save humanity when their surroundings crumble. at Backa Theatre is an overpowering experience. Five adult women perform five boys who play violence. The project, with a guest production team from the Balkans, presents unusual challenges and makes surprizing demands. But above all – truly fine theatre with electrifying acting. And, as always at Backa Theatre, with a steady gaze at the audience. Of course there will be adults – and maybe some young people too – who will have a hard time dealing with the language in Simona Semenc’s award-winning play. It’s not just spiced with violence-copying c-c-r-r-unch and c-c-r-ack but includes straight-shooting cunt, fuck and pussy. But the use of language is among the production’s positive qualities. So don’t cover your ears. Open your senses instead.

Backa Theatre has never avoided difficult subjects. They have always believed that their audiences have the need to observe the dark side of human existence – and they’ve always trusted their capabilities to do so. It’s always a question of how the darkness is portrayed. Violence is a part of young people’s reality, from the school yard to television news programs. But violence is also a large part of the entertainment industry. How can you depict it at the theatre at a time when the controversy about video violence is long over and every child has a computer screen or pad to surf? When techniques for constructing films and video games excel in new punches, kicks, and shootings?

The Slovanian dramatist Simona Semenic does it by anchoring her work in a couple of the theatre’s basic elements: roles and fantasy. By layering them, or rather by pushing them into each other like boxes in boxes, she creates a text with many different levels at work simultaneously.

Five boys meet in a closed room and play. But before they begin they recruit five actresses, standing in a row, the auditorium. Charging up. Watching us and waiting. A merciless counterpart scene appears at the end.

Maria Hedborg wears a 1950’s frock, Sandra Stojiljkoviè is dressed as a geisha, Josefin Neldén wears a nun’s habit, Gunilla Johansson looks like a hippie from the 1970’s and Emelie Strömberg is the coolest girl in town. They introduce themselves in a prologue using their own names and giving thumbnail bios. A little banter and direct audience address set the mood. This is theatre – not reality, a commenting function that is effectively repeated without reducing the performance to pedagogics.

After a presentation of the roles Dennis, Jurij, Kristof, Vid, and Blaz we are led to the boys’ ”playroom”. Their names suggest saints and martyrs. The next step – to superheroes – is explicit. The roles are also strengthened by Backa Theatre’s musicians, one instrument for each boy. Although it is mainly when they are gathered as an orchestra that Igor Gostuski’s compositions play important roles in changing rhythms or shifting focus. And deepening moods. The musicians become true emergency helpers, sometimes using themes from the world of the superheroes.

Five women performing boys at play could be simply embarrassing. But we are at Backa Theatre. And in the capable hands of director Anja Susa. She has a steady grip on all the levels of the play and creates momentum and surprize throughout. The structure of games within games gives the performers the opportunity to bravely break all restraints. The result is five fantastic performances in a verbal, physical and tightly coordinated unity of expression.

They haggle over the superhero roles. Female roles are strictly forbidden. ”Worthless!” is the frequently repeated, general judgment. The Swedish translation by Lucia Cajchanová and Henrik Dahl is exceedingly authentic and the performers effortlessly deliver the rough language and staccato dialogue.

In their handbags they find the weapons for the fights that develop in the games. A pocket mirror, a pair of knitting needles, a bunch of hair curlers, a can of hairspray. It’s funny – and one of the many clever leaps over the boundaries between the play’s various levels.

When the game slows down or swerves off-track, the boys pick new themes. Some of these are obligatory. Tourists and terrorists is voted down, while gays and neo-nazis gets approved. It turns into an orgy of violence and oppression in which walls collapse and the game spreads out into the surrounding society. But the most terrible is the family game. Closed up in the playroom, with the mother-role as the worst possible degradation. The game is constantly interrupted as the group realizes that they’re playing their own life experiences.

Although they do switch positions there is a hierarchy. Emelie Strömberg is the unofficial leader of the games. She steers events in the background with a lethal hand before attacking. Maria Hedborg has an uphill fight with Dennis’ compliancy. Sandra Stojiljkovic’s Jurij prefers to appear not to care about anything, while Gunilla Johansson’s high-strung energy hides a deep sorrow. Josefin Neldén is spectacular as Kristof who is strongly committed to all the roles he gets.

In the midst of all the hullabaloo there are islands of stillness. Longings for an absent father fill the walls with images to bash – or to stroke. And the ending leaves an image of the heroes firmly in the laps of the audience.

With and inspiration from the Balkan team, Backa has taken a steady and bold step forward.

Lis Hellström Sveningson
Translation: Robert Lyons.

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