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The Wetsuitman at Arcola Theatre | Review

The play takes its title and some of its narrative from an article by Norwegian journalist Anders Fjellberg about a body found off the coast of Norway in January 2015 and another off the coast of the Netherlands in October 2014. The wetsuits that the bodies contained were identical. The show makes much more sense having read the source article afterwards – the production rather over-labours the point, by way of attempting to be funny, that initial police enquiries were too rudimentary for the task at hand. But they didn’t know at the time what they were dealing with.

The Wetsuitman. © Tim Morozzo.
The Wetsuitman. © Tim Morozzo.

David Djemal, Eugenia Low and Youness Bouzinab apparently share twenty-eight characters between them. A running joke about who will play whom – the occasional swapping of characters is necessary by way of a particular scene introducing another one – isn’t, mercifully, repeated too often, and is removed completely once the show finally stops faffing around trying to be hilarious and starts telling a story (sort of) worth listening to. The late Australian comedian Barry Humphries observed in his final UK tour that these days, there’s no need to actually be funny. One only needs to identify as such. Even in death, his observations are accurate.

Once the story proper gets going, the opening ‘amusements’ (inverted commas mine) come across all the more as unnecessary – this is, after all, a tale about dead bodies, who they were, and why and how they ended up at sea, and dead in the water. Some characters are too hammy, with such an effort being put in to sound gruff, angry and/or aggressive that this comes at the cost of diction, which is, I regret to report, energy wasted. At eighty-five minutes, the show could be cut to about sixty – in its current form, there are too many digressions and diversions to easily follow proceedings.

I have no idea why microphones were used in one scene but not in any others, and the play ends abruptly. Now, there are some redeeming features – a perceptive later scene sees a missing person’s agency’s hands tied. If someone is fleeing a warzone and attempts to seek asylum elsewhere, but goes missing along their journey, can they be registered as missing in a country that doesn’t have them registered at all? When the story shifts to Calais, and specifically to the migrant camps in the area, different perspectives are sensitively presented, including migrants, locals and French authorities.

But the very minimalist set – three chairs and three microphones (the latter, as we have established, sparsely used) and no costume changes – means it is difficult to tell, for instance, who some of the characters are. “We’ve been told not to talk to journalists,” says someone or other, presumably in response to enquiries about the body washed up ashore. Who gave that instruction – a line manager, the police, a court by way of an injunction? It’s the kind of story worthy of telling, but I’ve rarely left the theatre more confused.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

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
The Wetsuitman
By Freek Mariën
Translated by David McKay
Directed by Trine Garrett

29 August – 2 September 2023
https://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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