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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Theatre Review: Valhalla at Theatre503

By Paul Murphy|Directed by Jo McInnes|To 24 October at Theatre503, 503 Battersea Road, London SW11                                                                          

As violence sweeps the city, an exhausted couple seek refuge in an isolated Nordic research centre. They are on the brink of discovering the cure for a devastating global disease when cracks in their marriage start to appear. Suddenly they find themselves forced to choose between conflicting allegiances to love and science. Conceived against the backdrop of a bewitching volcanic landscape, this extraordinary play questions the ethics of medical research, genetics and the endurance of human love.


By R.J. CHELLEL, PJ Theatre Critic

LONDON [WC News Service]- After attending VaIhalla at Theatre503 the other night, I read that wretched play on the way home, and it's as bad on the page as it was on the stage.

I remembered those flashed-up Icelandic titles at the beginning of each act.  I looked them up, and they, all four of them, relate to Norse mythology.  So, for example, Nastrond  (sorry, I don't know how to do diacriticals on the computer) at the start of Act III means 'Corpse Shore', the place in the afterlife where Nithoggr lives and chews on the bodies of those guilty of murder, adultery and oath-breaking -- which Norsemen considered the worse possible crime.

Two questions arise:  (1) how is anyone in the audience (apart from the odd Viking) supposed to know this?  And (2) what has it got to do with the play?  The melange of mythology, magic and science never made much sense to me. 

As for the Woman's friends, Frejya and Groa?  Are they real or mythological figures who exist only in the Woman's imagination?  Other questions:  what is the significance of the dead fox in that ridiculous scene?  Does it represent the Woman's miscarried babies?  What is in the hypodermic that is weaponised near the end of the play?  A drug to kill the Woman's foetus?  And the silly hangman's noose bit that follows, what's that about? 

Is this really a play about how the oppression of women by men -- witch-burning and so forth -- has produced a genetic change which kills male cells in utero?  The interesting element in the drama concerning medical ethics got rather lost in the muddle.  And it was a muddle.  (A far, far better dramatic treatment of the subject of the ethical ramifications of drugs trials run by pharmaceutical companies is The Effect by Lucy Prebble.  See it if it comes to a theatre near you.)  I read the epilogue in the Valhalla playscript, and I still don't get it.  Who were all those jumping-up-and-down girls anyway?

One thing I did learn from nosing around Wikipedia was that the Medea gene is real and has, as the Man says, been found in the DNA of the fruit fly, Drosophilia Melanogaster.  It is, apparently, the archetypal selfish gene that poisons embryos which have not inherited it, while at the same time stimulating the production of an antidote in those that do.

It's an awful lot of baggage for such a poorly written play.  By the way, the actor who stepped in at the last moment to play the Man the night I attended the play (I wonder what happened there) was actually  its author, Paul Murphy. I shall be looking out for his work in the future -- in order to avoid it.