The Wetsuitman is built on an intention: one that is informed by the howl of frustration moral people emit as growing ‘compassion-fatigue’ meets the greatest number of forcibly displaced people ever recorded in history. Indeed, ‘what will it take to make them care?!’ is an interesting question. At the heart of Belgian author Freek Marien’s 2019 play (translated into English by David McKay for its recent UK debut) is a possible tongue-in-cheek answer: what if audiences were as curious about the lives and backgrounds of refugees as they are about TV police procedural cliff-hangers?
The idea of setting up a bait-and-switch Nordic noir homage to disquiet us and make us pay attention is clever. Sadly, nearly everything in this production lets down the sense of totality required to lead us into one world and then jar us with another. The script is riddled with ‘tell don’t show’ lecturing and by depicting so many of the 28 characters (played by just three actors: David Djemal, Eugenia Low, Youness Bouzinab) via thin pastiche, we have nothing left in our hearts for when an emotional response is demanded. Instead of sensitising us to the very human experiences of refugees – finding a way for us to connect in their specific and unique human detail – this play that is designed to provoke our compassion, manages to hasten fatigue due to its monotony.
Although only 84 minutes long, director Trine Garrett chooses not to avail herself of any of the shortcuts or comic possibilities of a Scandi drama pastiche (we are treated to no props, music, lighting or mannerisms – and certainly not an iconic jumper). If the programme didn’t explicitly tell us the work ‘starts as Nordic noir’, we simply wouldn’t know. I suspect there is something in the underlying source material that, if played broadly and without fear of the obvious, could hook the audience before the reversal. But without a sense of completeness in the sketches of the first act, it requires devoted effort from an already morally-sensitised audience to try to care. By the time the play shifts into its actual subject matter and drops the cop-show framing, we can sense a different tone but without enough contrast to be sure. I appreciate the budget may not have stretched to the levels of, say, the Young Vic’s Fairview (that other great disquieting bait-and-switch) but there are ways to create a shift of tone, environment and pace without major funding. Alas, Garrett and her team (Amy Daniels, Lighting Designer and Nikiforos Fintzos, Sound Designer) took such an understated approach that any artist would struggle to make real 28 different characters and at least four different countries.
As Oscar Wilde wrote, “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” It feels as if this production of The Wetsuitman just couldn’t reach deep enough into its emotional pockets to tell us the story its intentions required. In fact, as Wilde also wrote, “In art good intentions are not of the smallest value.” As a jeremiad or the jumping off point for an essay, The Wetsuitman includes some important and indeed urgent points. Unfortunately, as a work of theatre it is principally incoherent, sentimental and tiresome.
Review by Mary Beer
Three actors, twenty-eight characters, one true story.
It’s 2015 on the coast of Norway. A retired architect finds a wetsuit, and in it, the remains of a body. The detective unit hits one dead end after another – until another body in an identical wetsuit washes up in the Netherlands.
Starting as a Nordic noir, The Wetsuitman playfully and movingly transforms into an exploration of identity, prejudice and forced migration. As one journalist digs deeper into the story behind the Wetsuitman, it becomes an interrogation of the world in which he was washed up and exactly how that could happen.
Foreign Affairs presents
By Freek Mariën
Translated by David McKay
Directed by Trine Garrett
29 August – 2 September 2023