Vesturport performs ‘Bastard—A Family Saga’ at Reykjavík City Theatre on June 2.
‘Bastard’—a transnational theatre project assembled under the auspices of the Vesturport theatre collective—is a love story in no traditional sense of the term. Though the narrative motif is Oedipal—Mikael, played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, wants to kill his father and marry his (in this case, soon-to-be step-) mother—the story’s embroiling of familial loyalty and romantic dependence is wholly and at times uncomfortably unconventional.
With unflinching candor, ‘Bastard’ presents us with the grotesque products of the lies we tell ourselves: characters on the run—literally sprinting across the stage—from themselves and the people wanting to love them. What their desperation reveals is a rather painful, but all too recognisable truth—that in love we often seek an accomplice to our self-deceit: someone willing to nurse our wounds even while pretending they aren’t there.
The plot centres around a reunion between the children of an emotionally abusive father who invites his herd back to the estate where they grew up on the occasion of his surprise wedding to a former sweetheart of one of his sons. The details of the family’s dysfunction blossom forth within the other-worldly stage decor—an intricate natural setting which stands in eerie compliment to the conflict on stage.
Alain de Botton, in his novel ‘Essays in Love,’ says “we locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves.”
“We fall in love,” he says, “hoping that we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves—all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise and brute stupidity.”
What is perhaps most disconcerting about ‘Bastard’ is the way in which it makes an existential hero out of its most despicable character. Although he is no doubt loathsome—nearly inhuman in his cruelty—the father figure Magnus, played by Waage Sandö, manages to make his children seem even more disgusting for their humanness. In some sense, the children all strive to be as unfeeling as he, and it is in this unwillingness to embrace their fragility that they destroy themselves on his behalf.
‘Bastard’ is in this way a story of how natural things spoil, and in the course of the play, everything does indeed begin to break down, revealing the rot at each character’s core. Marriages are shattered, loyalties destroyed. All is revealed and yet no one is willing to tell the truth, least of all to themselves.
What was a beautiful natural setting at the play’s opening—moist green grass bathed in ethereal light—is by intermission littered with the remains of conflict. We murder to dissect, said Wordsworth; we do not the better understand ourselves by virtue of our self-scrutiny. Instead, cursing our fragility, hating our humanness, we bleed to death under the watchful eye of those we pretend to love—and who pretend to love us, but who we do not allow to know us.
The play’s cynical suggestion is that this is perhaps inevitable: that no matter how good it may feel, the sun is bound to burn us, to turn our supple skin dry.
But there is also a kind of beauty in the gore. There is the promise of salvation in self-revelation. The characters willing to relinquish their illusions of themselves may, very well, have achieved salvation by the story’s end. But for the ones who ran, we have no reason to hope.
But perhaps there is no reason, either way, to hope. Perhaps there is no alternative to selfish-love. Perhaps we are alone, abandoned, bastard children to an indifferent human family. Or perhaps we’re just not doing it right.
We are not entirely lost to ourselves. Our gaping wounds and ghastly inadequacies do not escape us, though in the untrained eyes of others the possibility of inscrutability remains—at least for a time. Especially if we lie. Especially if we run.