Part of the Barbican's SPILL Festival of Performance, the Verk Produksjoner company takes influence for The Eternal Smile from the book of the same name by Pär LagerkvistA sometimes jarring combination of clowning, storytelling and movement, the Norwegian company's interpretation is based on the same premise of the dead discussing life – especially their own brief experience of it. The production begins akin to a deranged family sitting for a perturbing portrait with a red velvet backdrop. The curtain is fitting of the vaudeville production and operatic drama that plays out. Similarly, the stage takes up a third of the available space in the Barbican's Silk Street Theatre, signifying the separation between the deceased and the sense they make of the distinction between life and inactivity.

Each performer is painted white, like a skull, and dressed in an a discord of shimmering fabrics, ruffles and formal ware. They multi-role as one of the thousands of billions who have died throughout the expanse of humanity. Each has their own sorrows relating to their deaths – one man's wealth led to a life without worry and without struggle. He is nonplussed that a life without upheaval meant that in reality he had only one activity left to do – die. A former proprietor of a delicatessen sees little worth that she was renowned for her business, life for her was repetitive – the array and diversity of smells had become commonplace. The locksmith's dying action was attempting to break and enter the object of his affection's house by sitting and molding endless keys.

The stories are rich and told wonderfully, however what is lacking in these segments of The Eternal Smile is the visual representation of what is being described. The entire cast, despite the foibles of speaking in a foreign language, sumptuously unravel the nuances that turn a story into a shared experience. It is underwhelming that the cast simply stand and speak; as charismatic and dexterous as the performers are, the performance as a whole is let down by a lack of physical engagement. Another detraction is the repetitive nature of the sequences – the stories that unfold are compelling and interesting but follow the same conventions. Three segments of the play follow the same composition, spirits detailing the discontent they feel between living lives without reflection and then finding themselves in an infinity of pondering – they are confused and this is demonstrated excellently. There is a profound parallel between the dead wondering if their lives were wasted and the loss of life the living feel when in mourning.

Intersecting with the segments of storytelling are various descents into a hellish dimension. The actors don skull masks, ghoulish music plays and the performers move demonically. The humour and charm of storytelling is unfortunately lost in these parts, which fail to add any further movement to the trajectory of the production. What's also jarring are the random moments in The Eternal Smile: an occasional pirouetting gorilla and the quick disappearance of some of the performers. A rigid, albeit effusive, structure means that the physical and absurdist direction the production takes feels somewhat amiss. The stage is dismantled and a parade of mannequins march towards God. Finally fed up with reflection, the dead spend millennia in a quest to find a final solace.

The Eternal Smile raises more questions than it could possibly answer. The disparity between satisfaction and crisis, fulfillment and self-doubt is beautifully unraveled. It is impossible not to find the language and performances enticing and beguiling – the sense of floating through eternity is achieved marvelously. Perhaps this was also the intention: an effort to reflect the desultory emotions of the dead to have the play descend between sense and pace so erratically. If this is true, then Verk Produkjener have criminally underused their verbal and physical prowess. 

The Eternal Smile, at Silk Street TheatreStefan Nicolaou reviews The Eternal Smile at the Barbican Centre.4