"Sparsely-staged revival of fabulous epic."
by Jacqui Marchant-Adams for remotegoat on 18/11/14

Midway through its run at the (very lovely!) Drayton Arms Theatre near Gloucester Road, Firstborn Theatre’s adaptation of The Vikings at Helgeland is the first English language production for 80 years. On the one hand such a gap between stagings is understandable – as it’s an epic play – but on the other it’s criminal – as it’s a FANTASTIC play!

The action deals with an extended Viking family: Ornulf of the Fjords and his two daughters (one by birth, one fostered) who have both been snatched away by their respective ‘husbands’. Dagny, Ornulf’s daughter by birth, is with Sigurd, and foster daughter Hjordis is with Gunnar. Ornulf demands recompense for the loss of his daughters, Sigurd and Gunnar quickly comply, and peace breaks out amongst the men. A peasant named Kaare comes by and a mutual grievance between he and Gunnar is easily resolved despite Hjordis’ stirring, and happiness reigns.

We've all been here before, of course, and happiness of these families is not by any means long lived.

The saga plays out on a well-crafted set – making very much of very little, and creating atmosphere with suggestion and sound rather than elaborate scenery. Naked flame was particularly well used. The less is more treatment continues with costume, suggesting an era rather than attempting to recreate it in slavish detail. The tone here is less Norse, more Game of Thrones (a very smart hook to hang the play on indeed, and imaginatively expressed - particularly in the music used – kudos to composer Michael Wray), and as such accents are more Celtic than Scandinavian. The modern touches in the costumes often worked well but occasionally jarred, with a flash of metal stud on jeans distracting a little at times, and arguably the more ‘authentic’ the costume the more successful (with Hjordis particularly standing out as especially effectively dressed).

As the means are not available to produce this epic on the scale for which it was written, imagination must serve to create this world and these images. For this to work, we really need the actors to take us with them, and sell this world and this story. Thankfully for the most part the cast does exactly this – conjuring the Viking world very effectively. An outstanding performance from Roseanne Lynch drives the action – and Hjordis’ motivations are clear throughout the play – particularly in one scene where her need for revenge is portrayed perfectly – removing the usual ‘if only people just talked to each other’ problem so often seen in tragedy. Here it’s obvious why people can’t just talk to each other – Hjordis is an Iago-style instigator.

Underneath the revenge tragedy, however, there is a traditional love triangle at play, and secrets prove central to the downfall of the family. Harry Anton smoulders as Sigurd, and Fergus Leathem is solid as Gunnar. Sindri Swan and Roel Fox were very watchable both as Kaare and Thorolf respectively, as well as peripheral characters (although it did jar a little that all they did externally to signify they were no longer their main roles was put on a hat!). John McLear had gravitas as Ornulf, but could afford to push the emotional envelope a little further, and would have benefited from more pace. Emma Kemp was delightful as Dagny, childlike and content, till a moment of spite brings everything crashing down around her.

But the night truly belonged to Roseanne Lynch’s Hjordis – a spectacular portrayal of a quite brilliant role. One weak moment in the staging took away slightly from the drama of her story, but was just a tiny niggle in a fabulous performance.

Please try and catch this production if you can, it’s a brilliant play staged ably by Firstborn Theatre.

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