Initially presenting as a Scandi Noir, a dead man in a wetsuit washes up on a beach in Norway, before The Wetsuitman shifts into an examination of refugees, moving to the refugee camp near Calais and on to Syria, all in attempts to identify the dead man.
This production uses three actors; David Djemal, Eugenia Low and Youness Bouzinab to play 28 different characters, with meticulous lighting designed by Amy Daniels helping the many scene and character changes. The staging is minimal, featuring only three plastic chairs and a trio of strategically placed microphones for the scenes set within the refugee camp.
The introductory mystery kicks off with the cast rapidly switching between roles: from the clichéd chain-smoking police officers to the medical examiners and witnesses, and so on. They signal when a new role is needed and decide who will assume it. The humour in this segment tends to veer towards farce, creating a markedly different tone compared to the story that follows.This first part of the play could benefit from some significant editing. There are jokes about uncovering backstories, as the actors shift from one stereotypical role to another, but these backstories seem unnecessary, serving only to introduce some early comedic moments that quickly overstay their welcome.
While effectively introducing the audience to the frequent transitions between characters and perspectives, this approach also more than occasionally becomes confusing. The narrative’s constant leaps across time, locations, and character viewpoints are challenging to follow, resulting in moments where it’s easy to lose track. Furthermore, pieces involving journalists and hints of potential threats remain underdeveloped, leaving us uncertain about their relevance to the story.
The Wetsuitman takes a significant change in tone as it transitions to the Calais Jungle, a makeshift refugee camp. In a place where none of the camp’s residents are officially recognised an official asks “How can you be a missing person when officially you are not even here?” Gone are the stereotypes and broad comedy, replaced by a deeper exploration of the plight of refugees, individuals fleeing from war and persecution. This is the heart of the play, focusing less on role-switching and more on the real-world impact on refugees, the dedicated individuals aiding them, and the prejudices they face. The presentation is both compelling and impactful, finally allowing an emotional connection with the audience. The clarity of the narrative in this part of the production also helps its effectiveness. Now, the cast’s talents shine, as they delve into the emotional depth of their characters, transcending the earlier farcical stereotypes.
The play presents quite a stark contrast: despite a perplexing beginning and a lengthy, confusing, setup to immerse us in its narrative, it eventually delivers a powerful emotional blow, as the mystery comes to a heart-wrenching resolution. Grounded in a sorrowful, entirely true story, this is a memorable evening of theatre that leaves a lasting impact.
Written by: Freek Mariën
Translated by: David McKay
Directed and Produced by: Trine Garrett
Lighting Design by: Amy Daniels
The Wetsuitman plays at Arcola Theatre until 2 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.