The Awakening starts with an erection, moves on to a scene of masturbation and ends in violence. That’s got your attention.
Despite these occasion spikes Julian Garner’s award-winning drama, which opened on Thursday at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre, is what you’d call a slow burner. The tension and pressure builds imperceptibly through the first half and you’re convinced something truly devastating is going to happen. You wait..and you wait..
I’ve always had my doubts about Scandi-noir. Anyone who has glimpsed some of their cop thrillers on our TV, or caught a bit of Ibsen or Strindberg on stage, will know that they do things differently over there. For a start, liberal is their middle name.
I don’t want that to sound in any way jingoistic, because we can be pretty odd over here too, but their system of justice can be perplexing to us Brits.
The Awakening is a Scandi-drama by default. Garner is English but he has spent most of his adult life living in Scandinavia and the social landscape has clearly influenced his work.
We meet Joannes, a seriously disturbed young man, who has been in prison for just two years – in solitary – for raping and killing an eight-year-old girl.
During his time inside he has turned to god after being been introduced, influenced and indoctrinated by prison reformer and do-gooder, Agnes. She believes the boy has found god and repented his sins – but has he and for how long?
Joannes is now a religious zealot who manages to arouse himself by finding suggestive passages in The Bible. Nevertheless, Agnes, has him released and takes him to live on a remote farm, run by a surly young woman called Unn, where she was once the housekeeper.
The scene is set up for his reintegration into society.
This is theatre at its most intense. Alex Dowding’s disturbing performance as Joannes completely wrong-foots you. Do you feel sympathy for this damaged boy or horror and revulsion over the crime he committed?
Joana Nastari’s turn, as Unn, is a slow burner too. Her initial feelings are resentment and desperation as she struggles alone with the farm, yet even she shows a more compassionate side once she gets to know her unconventional guest.
The tension mounts when the couple, joined by Agnes, realise that they are not alone on the island. Is it time for everyone to answer for their actions in an earlier life?
I couldn’t warm to Grace Cookey-Gam’s Agnes. She’s naive, selfish and with little genuine feeling for the young couple who are pawns in her game plan.
Far more sympathy goes to Jarren Dalmeda’s strong supporting role as Iverson and I can’t tell you why without revealing a plot twist.
I left the theatre pondering what I’d seen and asking myself whether Norway’s justice system of leniency and reformation works? Not on this evidence.
There is no lightness in the story. Instead audiences are immersed into a grey, black, sombre tale where there’s no chance of a happy ending for anyone. Tautly directed by Madelaine Moore this is as noir as it gets.
The Awakening runs at the Brockley Jack until September 24.
Don’t expect a happy ending in Julian Garner’s bleak, sombre, but intensely acted Scandi-noir, The Awakening, at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre.