Theatre Rain Snakes Young Vic Studio, London

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The Independent Culture
Rain Snakes is the first production by Nordlys, a new Anglo-Scandinavian company set up to correct the impression that Scandinavian drama went into permanent adjournment after Ibsen and Strindberg. A policy statement in the programme claims a surge of international interest in films from this region (Babette's Feast, Pelle the Conqueror) and novels (Sophie's World etc) but suggests that stage works continue to be unfairly ignored. The statement draws a tactful veil over the horrors of Which Witch, the recent mega-flop Norwegian musical starring the singer who scored nul points for his country in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nordlys begins its mission with this English premiere, directed and translated by Kim Dambaek, of a Per Olov Enquist play that has, according to the publicity, been "acclaimed across Europe" and mounted by Ingmar Bergman. If anything will draw the English public to see this piece on spec, though, it's the canny casting of Sian Thomas in the central role.

With the eyes and profile of a fearless, intelligent bird of prey and with her flair for showing you the pain and disappointment that can lie behind a callous, actressy manner, Thomas is a performer who excels at conveying the self-hatred of the sophisticated (witness her compelling Hedda Gabler and Mrs Marwood). These qualities make her an ideal choice for the part of the celebrated 19th-century Scandinavian actress, Johanne Luise Heiberg. What drives the play is this woman's guilt at having turned into an ice queen so as to desensitise herself to the smart of injuries received and also inflicted during her rise from the gutter.

Rain Snakes brings her into collision with the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, another upstart Dane in denial over the degraded and degrading circumstances of his childhood. As played by Jason Morell, this "booby genius" comes across less as the baby elephant he's likened to than as a nervy, socially anguished mixture of the White Rabbit and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He writhes into the proceedings aflame with embarrassment, having just come from a palace reception where his attempts to deliver an ode to love foundered when his dentures flew out. Goaded by his social calling and by his naive idealisation of her marriage to the now sterile playwright and critic Johan Heiberg (Robert David MacDonald), the actress forces Andersen into a prolonged truth session that eventually mirrors, in an inverted form, the siblings' relationship in his story "The Snow Queen". The difference here is that it is too late for the warmth of sympathetic tears to melt the ice.

There is no shortage of reasons why the evening should not work. The translation is at times clumsy ("encapsulated in an ice cocoon" manages to sound at once tautological and like a mixed metaphor) and, in the uncircumspectness of its intensity, the play hovers throughout on the verge of highbrow hokum. The dried-up, over-cultivated husband and the turbaned, ghost-pale woman who is a wordless, occasional moaning presence, dangle at the edges of the drama. The climatic memories of anti-Semitic violence are unskilfully triggered. What keeps you rapt (and makes you wish the play could be recast as a dramatic monologue) is the compulsively watchable Sian Thomas.

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