The Father – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By August Strindberg, adapted by Mike Poulton

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th September 2006

          We were due to see this play on Monday, followed by a post-show talk, but there was a cancellation due to a medical emergency, so we came tonight. I haven’t seen this play before, in any version, so had no expectations, other than being aware Strindberg is considered a bit grim and possibly misogynistic. I was pleasantly surprised for the most part.

         This production ranges from rampant comedy at the start to gut-wrenching psychological drama at the end – quite a range. I wasn’t surprised that Jasper Britton could handle it; I was only surprised that it took me a whole five minutes to recognise him – that man is a chameleon. The comedy at the start related to an unfortunate soldier who has been caught having it away with the kitchen maid, and is expected to take responsibility for the child she is carrying. His response is to question the paternity, as the woman has had sex with many men, not just him. This episode sets up one of the main issues of the play – that a man cannot know who has fathered his wife’s children (not so much of an issue now with DNA testing, but still relevant in terms of potential infidelity).

         Adolf, the father of the title (Jasper Britton) complains of the women in his life controlling him. He wants to get his daughter out of the house and into town where she can develop her own perspective on life. His wife, Laura (Theresa Banham), wants to keep the girl with her. The battle of wills between them is the nub of the play. The wife is described, by her own brother no less, as someone who has to get her own way, and who will stop at nothing to achieve that. We see as the play develops just how ruthless she can be. She has prevented her husband from working on his one real pleasure, his mineralogical studies, by not posting his letters to bookshops, colleagues, etc. and instead writing to these people herself, telling them her husband is going mad. And in the frustration and incomprehension she creates in him, he is slowly going mad. This woman is an early sociopath.

         Having said that, this adaptation is very skilful at leaving the audience undecided for a long time about many things. Both characters have their dark side – she is undoubtedly highly manipulative and demanding, he has a desire for control that nowadays we see as unhealthy, but what is really going on between them? At times, I wondered if he was going mad, and the wife was genuinely concerned for his sanity. At others, it was plain that she was a monster, and in other moments, it seemed possible he had driven her to behave this way. By the end, it’s clear that their relationship, lasting seventeen years, has honed their viciousness towards each other. Both entered the relationship not understanding their partner, and those misunderstandings led to their downfall. A sad story, with a very sad ending. As the wife manipulates her way to apparent victory, the father is reduced to a sedated, mumbling wreck of a man, trussed up in a straitjacket. His final act of defiance is to die, presumably leaving his widow with little money (a small pension, according to the text), when what she was after was a decent living, and full control.

         (Six days, and three other productions later) There’s some interesting dialogue about religions and atheism in the play. The father is beset by women, yes, but he’s also beset by their many different religious points of view. He’s an atheist, so in one sense he’s out of the loop – most people in that community would presumably have had some religious affiliation. His daughter is being scared out of her wits by her grandmother on her mother’s side telling her about demons, etc. (so we get some idea of what drove her mother to villainy), while the father’s old nurse has great faith in prayer and handing everything over to the Lord. Just the clash of all these religious ideas is enough to make them look ridiculous.

         The wife’s deceit is almost a living thing in the play. She’s so deceitful and manipulative, it would be impossible to live with her. She cannot be trusted, and yet her husband has trusted her, to his own undoing. She is also readily believed by the new doctor, whose help she needs to get her husband declared insane, although he does sound a note of caution now and then.

         So is Strindberg a woman-hater, or just balancing out Ibsen’s view of women as purely good and redemptive?  At one point, Ibsen’s play Ghosts is mentioned. “Rubbish”, says the father, with feeling, and describes Ibsen as “that female apologist”. Women certainly can be as manipulative and destructive as men, and Strindberg happily shows this, but I’m not sure the men get off lightly either. I would need to see more of his work before deciding on this one, not that it will change my mind about this play – thoroughly enjoyable.

         All the performances were excellent. Jasper Britton was especially good, descending into madness via rage and frustration. The set was simple, just a desk and some chairs. One item that got me going was the straitjacket. As soon as it arrived, it was like having a deadly snake on the stage – I couldn’t put it out of my mind. My own fears of being rendered powerless came to the fore, and so I lost a little of the performances. I so much wanted the father to win his battle, and for reason to prevail, but sadly, drama doesn’t always work out as well as real life. Maybe that’s why people find Strindberg gloomy. Ah well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me