By August Strindberg, in a new version by David Greig
Directed by Alan Rickman
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Date: Thursday 23rd October 2008
I’ve only seen one Strindberg play before, at Chichester, and I was surprised on that occasion to find it more humorous than I’d expected. This play was similar in that respect, and also had the same darkness in all of the characters that appears to be typical of Strindberg’s work.
Three characters meet in the lounge of a Swedish hotel by the sea. There are three scenes, and each scene has two of the characters, so we get to see all of the relationships. At the end, all three are together for what is basically a final, short tableau.
The three people are Adolph, a painter who is unwell, Tekla, his wife who is also a writer, and Gustav, who appears to be a doctor. At first Gustav and Adolph are talking, and it’s clear that Gustav has had a very strong impact on Adolph in a short time. Tekla has been away – she’s expected back at any moment – and it’s the relationship between Adolph and Tekla that Gustav is working on, trying to get Adolph to stand up for himself and take back his manly “rights”, whatever they may be. As a result, Adolph doesn’t go down to the ferry to meet his wife, and when she arrives, all concerned for her husband, Gustav has taken himself off to the next room to overhear their conversation so that he can give Adolph some feedback later.
Husband and wife then have a conversation that shows us their relationship and how Adolph has changed towards her. There’s some frank talk about sex and lovers, and it’s clear they have, or had, a very playful relationship. Now that Adolph has been affected by what he’s heard from Gustav, including a very morbid and detailed description of an epileptic fit, he can’t relate to her in the same way. He wants them to leave that night, while she intends to stay to attend a soiree that evening. He leaves to take a walk in the fresh air and after a short time Gustav re-enters the room.
I’d realised by this time that Gustav had to be Tekla’s first husband, and indeed he was. He now shows his true darkness, as he pretends not to have known she was there. Despite their history, he still manages to seduce her enough to get her agreement to have an assignation with him that night after Adolph has left. She’s partly persuaded by a torn photo of her that Adolph left behind and which Gustav is using to good effect. She finally picks up on this because of something he said, and realises, too late, that she’s been had. As Gustav explains to her the way in which he’s corrupted Adolph as revenge for her betrayal, Adolph is revealed at the door. He’s been listening to their conversation, and now he’s succumbed to Gustav’s programming. He falls into the room suffering from his first epileptic fit, and the play ends with Tekla trying to help him and Gustav commenting that she really does love him.
This description doesn’t get across the lightness and humour in much of this play. Despite appearances, and all of the characters being unpleasant in their own way, I liked the gritty way in which Strindberg was examining these relationships. While I find these plays not as satisfying as those which include the light with the dark – Strindberg really isn’t interested in anything “good” about his characters or people in general from what I’ve seen – I find he makes some good observations about men and women, and introduces some interesting ideas. I was struck once again by how much energy for change there was in Scandinavia at that time. This comes out in Ibsen’s work as well. There were also some comments about how we pick up habits from those around us, especially those we are close to, and how difficult it is to tell who has influenced us and how much.
But the main pleasure for me was the performances. Owen Teale as Gustav conveyed just the right amount of malice concealed behind a well-intentioned exterior. I could see why Tekla had left him in the first place. He wanted to control everything and couldn’t stand to let her get away. Anna Chancellor as Tekla was superb, showing us all the intelligence, passion and vulnerability of this modern woman. And Tom Burke as Adolph gave us a believable victim, despite the increasingly absurd and extreme pronouncements of Gustav. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, transfixed and unable to move. A really good production all round.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me