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A CurtainUp London Review
The Feast of Snails
by Lizzie Loveridge
The Feast of Snails brings back to London's theatre, the great Shakespearian actor David Warner in this obscure Nordic play from an Icelandic novelist, Olaf Olafsson, who also happens to be vice chairman of Time Warner Digital Media in New York. His novel The Journey Home became the best selling work of fiction in Icelandic history. After seeing The Feast of Snails I wondered whether I would have to be from Scandinavia, or least to have an understanding of the Icelandic psyche, to appreciate the finer points of the play which has many parallels with Enigma Variation, which Donald Sutherland brought to the West End in 2000 --both about isolated successful men to whom a stranger comes with a life shattering revelation, and both featuring a great actor returning to the London stage after a gap of three decades or so.
In Snails we meet a solitary businessman dining alone. He is the only Icelandic member of a group of gourmets who style themselves Les Amis de l'Eté. As they dine on one of their famously themed meals in Paris, Karl Johnson (David Warner) will join them, synchronising the time of each course even though he is dining at his home in Iceland. The meal has been prepared by his housekeeper and cook, Katrin (Sorcha Cusack) and will be served by the buxom and very pretty maid, Rosa (Siwan Morris).
David Paulson (Philip Glenister), a stranger arrives with a mission he is reluctant to disclose until the right moment, but there is never a right moment for this kind of message. Paulson's only connection to the diners seems to be that he was once at school with Karl's son. Much of the play is monologue from Johnson as he reveals himself to be rich, smug, widowed, racist, and successful both in business and with women. At one point he gives David the task of going into a neighbour's empty house and planting a framed photograph of Johnson on the bedside table of the neighbour's wife. Why? A power game presumably to confuse the neighbour with whom he is squabbling. The revelation is not quite the one I expected from the intruder, the Ibsenlike arrival of the illegitimate child, but is of the same ilk.
The cast do very well given the belligerence of the audience reaction to the play on the night I went. David Warner is still an illuminating stage presence and I hope that he will not wait so long before appearing again in London. He brings a commanding ease with to his part. Sorcha Cusack too, cannot be faulted as the loyal servant who used to work for Johnson's brother and who has kept silent all these years. Siwan Morris leaves a trail of tantalisingly, unanswered questions as to her relationship with the master of the house. At one point the reluctant Katrin is forced by Johnson to sample the snails in a scene of oral sexual innuendo. Philip Glenister's solid, dependable visitor will eventually deliver his unpalatable message but not until he has been persuaded to sample the various snail courses and has completed his commando mission in the neighbour's house.
Ashley Martin Davies' set has the walls dripping famous art, two Rothkos, seven Monet lithographs, a Picasso. The dining room furniture is English and seventeenth century, the carpet a valuable Persian antique -- all part of Karl Johnson's make up is a "nouveaux riches" pride in his expensive possessions. Large glass doors which are bathed in heavy rain for most of the latter half of the play, a reminder of the persistent Icelandic weather.
The discussion about food, affords an opportunity to get inside the mind of a gourmet, someone in this case whose is obsessed with food. I wonder whether the playwright might develop these original ideas about food instead of trying to emulate the trail of Nordic playwrights of a hundred years ago. Johnson tells us at one point, "Those that eat snails don't need Viagra". Each nationality of snail course has a theme which Johnson expounds, attributing a racial stereotype so that the German snails are forever "invading other people's territory", that the Icelandic snails are lazy and the Americans snails are fat, happy, outgoing and they want everyone to like them. Simplistic but conceptually worthy of development.
The shelf life of Snails is unlikely to be long; in fact five weeks has already been lopped off the prospective run as I write. But I do hope that David Warner will reappear in London soon.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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