REVIEW: The Commune / Kollektivet

Nordic imports have been the ‘in thing’ for a while. Gosh, there was even a fairly snide anti-Danish design article in The Times supplement last weekend – when an informed backlash with confident reference to ‘hygge’ appears in the national press then a culture has definitely made an impact. I, for one, remain a Scandi-phile, in particular a lover of all things Danish. I may be one of the only people who hasn’t given up on my Duolingo account and I recently progressed to a textbook. It’s a passion, what can I say.

Anyway, as you may expect I spend a lot of time watching Danish drama, and so I had to check out the latest Danish import ‘The Commune’, or to give it the Danish title ‘Kollektivet’. Set in the liberal 70s and taking its theme as the craze of commune-living with all the freedom all that involves, it could be summarised that the film depicts the breakdown of a family as it becomes a victim of liberal thinking. However, it could also be argued that it demonstrates the power of love beyond traditional family ties, and how love can extend beyond the social construct of the family unit. It’s both heart-wrenching and heart-warming, and refuses to tie things up cleanly, reflecting the unavoidable chaos of reality whichever way you choose to live it.

For anyone at all acquainted with Danish film or drama there are some familiar faces, and the stand out performance comes from Trine Dyrholm, star of ‘Love is all you need’ (or in Danish ‘Den skaldede frisor’ – ‘The Bald Hairdresser’ – I love the Danes) with Pierce Brosnan (well worth a watch). In ‘The Commune’ she plays the newsreader-wife who encourages her University lecturer husband to create the commune. In an attempt to sex up the mundane confine of her comfortably happy marriage, she loses her husband both emotionally, and then physically, as he finds that lost comfort in the arms of a student, a stereotype exacerbated by the fact she is doppeldanger version 2.0 of his wife. Dyrholm’s descent from an attempted acceptance of the affair to full-on vodka-soaked emotional breakdown culminates in an excrutiating scene where she loses not only her husband but her livelihood. Her realisation that she has lost her previously happy family underlines the reality of ‘liberal living’ and the fact that you can’t have it all. If you ask for excitement, your husband might take you literally.

Admittedly there are some moments in the film which don’t quite work. It is not clear whether Dyrholm’s Anna had expected living in a commune to involve a little infidelity or not. At the beginning she merely repeatedly says that she has always wanted to live with their friend Ole (wink wink), and in one scene grabs his bum. Therefore it is hard to comprehend the true extent of her husband’s betrayal. Another issue (although it could be just me) is how their 14 year old daughter’s first relationship moves with alarming speed to the bedroom (one minute she follows the stranger home, next minute she is in a darkened room being told to undress) and had me convinced that the film was heading for a teen pregnancy. However, despite my little anxieties, overall this is a well-delivered, emotional, yet fairly upbeat ride*.

*Pun intended – this is the 70s after all

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REVIEW – ‘10,000 Smarties’ at the Old Fire Station, Oxford

smartiesImmigration. At the epicentre of the political turbulence that has followed the ‘Leave’ vote just over a week ago, and an issue that feeds off fear to create societal confusion and often ill-informed hatred, the subject of Josh Azouz’s play is topical, delving into the realities of refugee life, and demonstrating how for many child refugees a Peter Pan existence would be preferable to what ensues once they have leapt the child-adult divide.

In 70 minutes, a cast of only three acts as an inverted family. Azouz plays with our preconceptions: the child represents the authorities, the mother is helpless and in love with her foster child, the man is what once was the son.

The play begins with Enayat’s birthday. He doesn’t want to turn 18, despite his foster mother’s (and lover’s) excitement that he has the potential to get the grades to go to Imperial College London to study Medicine. Yet, at 18, the fact that Enayat is a refugee from Afghanistan and lacks both passport and birth certificate, means that the education and promise offered to him during this life in the UK are about to be taken away from him.

The authorities take no time to sweep in and Azouz’s decision to cast a child as the various authoritative roles (policeman, social worker) means that their hegemony is initially laughable. Equipped with toy dog, light-up trainers and a tube of smarties, the police seem to pose no real threat to Enayat and Sal’s life together. Yet as Enayat is taken away to a detention centre, Azouz shows (as he does throughout the play) that appearances can be deceptive, and the child’s power becomes dangerous and scary.

There is an obvious attack on the authorities, exposing their decisions on refugees as mere child’s play. The smarties analogy which lends the play its title, simultaneously demonstrates the difficulty that the government face as they try to protect British citizens from the ‘one poisonous smartie’ in amongst the harmless others, yet also undermines the decision-making process that they follow, reducing it to a child’s sweet and a guessing game on Enayat’s true age. Azouz presents a flawed Orwellian system, where the important aspects surrounding Enayat’s status as a refugee, and the reasons why he chose to come to the UK, are ignored.

Azouz does not shy away from the brutal realities of detention centre life, referencing lack of cleanliness and hygiene, and rape. Throughout the play we watch Enayat’s mental state slip from denial, into anger, and then suicidal depression. As Sal’s devotion intensifies, reminiscing over the joys Enayat brought to the mundanity of her existence, Enayat, treated like a criminal in a cage, pushes her away. Their relationship acts as a modern Oedipus, and despite any initial moral quandary you may have, it comes to act as reversed tragedy of the play. The final mirrored scenes of the pair at the denouement of the piece act as a powerful emotional climax. The universe has destined them for each other, bound in love, yet the law, and authorities, deem that they must be kept apart.

Commissioned by Magdalen College School for Oxford’s Festival of the Arts this production by Three Streets packs a bittersweet, emotional punch; it had me in tears.