The Private Ear/The Public Eye – September 2013

Experience: The Private Ear 7/10

The Public Eye 8/10

By Peter Shaffer

Directed by Alistair Whatley

The Original Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd September 2013

This was a double bill of two one-act plays, which were joined together by a neat little scene change at the start of the second half. We’d seen The Private Ear partnered with Black Comedy in the 1980s, so this was a new combination for us. As it turned out, I’d seen the film Follow Me! on TV many years ago, so the story of The Public Eye was familiar too, but stage is a different beast to film.

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Marat/Sade – November 2011

4/10

By: Peter Weiss, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by: Anthony Neilson

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 4th November 2011

I’m not fond of protest plays at the best of times, and even though this play was set circa the French revolution, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for us tonight. The underlying intention of shocking the audience into a new view of the world and events never seems to succeed with me, and I find myself expanding my understanding more through sympathetic treatments of difficult subjects or through humour rather than polemics.

The original production, put on by the RSC in the early 1960s, was a response to events at that time, expressing the frustration and anger at the way western society appeared to have failed to bring about a better world for all. There was still social injustice, war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and many a bra was as yet unburned. Coupled with this discontent was the belief that a better world was possible, a peaceful world where all needs were met and everyone lived a happy and fulfilled life. Well, we were all young once. The older generation, having fought and lived through at least one world war (some had managed two) were perhaps more content with a spell of peace and the end of rationing, but hold the slippers and cocoa for a while, as we take a trip to a lunatic asylum somewhere in France during the reign of Napoleon.

The set was fairly simple, but contained some ingredients of menace. The balcony above the stage at the back held the musicians and some chairs for the on stage audience – the director of the asylum, his ‘guest’ (a very attractive young lady) and several other people, including an Arab gentleman. Below this balcony was a row of security barriers, the sort with alternating bars; these worked like revolving doors. There were four ladders arching out from the sides of the stage – two each side- and connecting with the circle balconies. And above all this was a white circular thing which was lit by a flickering light from time to time – I don’t really know what that was about.

The main piece of furniture was the bath that Marat is killed in – this mainly rose up through the floor, but was wheeled off at one point and brought back on again later. Marat sat in it for long periods – his skin must have been so wrinkly – working on his laptop. There was a loo at one point, and various props such as buckets full of pig entrails, mobile phones, dildos, etc. The costumes were modern, and a lot of the references were contemporary too – hijabs, Marat filming his terrorist manifesto, tasering a prisoner, etc.

The idea of the play is that the Marquis de Sade, who has been locked up in the lunatic asylum for being seriously unpleasant, is putting on a play about the death of Marat with the help of his fellow inmates. The asylum’s professed purpose is to help these poor lunatics, so artistic endeavours are encouraged, and the director and guests are attending the performance along with members of the public (us) to see the results.

My first difficulty with this production was that I couldn’t make out the dialogue very well. Some bits were fine – Jasper Britton as de Sade was good, and one or two others were usually OK – but I lost large chunks of the story, particularly Charlotte Corday’s bits. That meant I couldn’t engage with the characters, and so I lost interest fairly early on. Marat and Corday’s stories were interspersed with the story of the lunatic asylum, and in many ways that was the more interesting, and disturbing, part of the evening.

Every inmate had a mobile phone, and when any of them transgressed seriously enough, they received a text message from the director. All well and good, you may think, but then the creepy bit happened. The offender would kneel on one of the walkways, take out a black hood from a pouch in their trousers, and put it on, They then had to stay in that position for several minutes as a punishment. And the scariest thing  was the way all the inmates accepted this treatment – what had they been subjected to beforehand to make them so compliant?

The tasering was also uncomfortable to watch. It was a part of the ‘show’ in which de Sade starred. He was expounding his philosophy at the time, while also being chained up and then tasered by the inmate playing Charlotte Corday. At one point, she stopped briefly to have her picture taken beside her ‘victim’, with her thumbs up. All of these images evoked the gratuitous violence of the torture camps and prisoners of war, but the point was hard to fathom. Comments were made at the post-show discussion about the public being de-sensitised to violence, but Steve and I have probably seen more horrific images when we were growing up, courtesy of WWI, Vietnam, etc., images that just wouldn’t be shown nowadays. And in the time of the play, just after the French Revolution and in Napoleon’s reign, people regularly saw acts of extreme cruelty and violence which would drive most of us insane.

My problems with using these images on stage are twofold. Firstly, I know it’s a play, so if things get too bad I protect myself by either looking away or by disengaging with the performance. It’s not real, and what matters to me is the emotional impact such depictions can have if used wisely. In fact, there’s often a greater impact when the images aren’t so graphic – less is more. The other problem is my awareness of how often images in the media have been faked, specifically to generate a response of disgust or horror. After many years, I’m not so easily hooked by this sort of sensationalism, which again undercuts any impact the production is hoping to have. In the tasering case, there’s also the difficulty that de Sade opted for the experience, so although Jasper Britton’s suffering was horrifying real-looking, I still wasn’t as affected as the creative team may have intended.

Having heard some stories about the nature of the audience participation, I was also braced for more revolting objects being thrown amongst us than actually happened, which was sort of a relief, but then that expectation may have also kept me from being engaged with the performance – not very helpful. We do our best to avoid this sort of foreknowledge, but it didn’t work this time as the fuss was too high profile – damn the Daily Mail!

So now for the good bits – this won’t take long. Apart from Jasper Britton, who’s always watchable, I liked Golda Rosheuvel very much. Her lunatic act was heartbreakingly believable; she seemed to be listening to voices in her own head, and her occasional claps punctuated the action very cleverly, while still being a sign of her madness. Of course, not everyone in the asylum was there because they were mentally ill, so some of the inmates looked pretty normal, if somewhat scared, but there were also one or two false notes struck in the madness department which let the side down.

One of the other inmates had a sex obsession, and this was played with great gusto by Lanre Malaolu. He was so distracted by his lustful urges that he could hardly get his lines out, apart from a couple of minutes when he’d relieved himself by humping the stage. I also liked Christopher Ettridge’s Director Coulmier; whenever the inmates’ play became too satirical, he was quick to point out how much better things were under Napoleon. At the end, he also takes his clothes off and has some words scrawled on his body. I couldn’t make out if his craziness at the end was meant to imply that he was also crazy, or that the whole world was full of crazy people, or what, but it was an amusing ending.

The music was also good – kept my feet tapping – but despite the cast’s best efforts I just didn’t enjoy this very much. I can understand the desire to bring the play up-to-date, and make it more relevant to today’s world, as well as getting away from any memories of the original production, but I found this approach too bitty. From the post-show we learned that the cast had worked on their characters for the first four weeks, without looking at the text. They’d only turned to that when they ‘knew who they were’, and then had four weeks working with the text. From my perspective, treating a play with such disrespect and focusing on aspects of the performance that aren’t actually going to come across to an audience as readily as the dialogue seems to explain the lacklustre nature of this production.

There was also a very short actress, Lisa Hammond, who played the herald. She had a motorised wheelchair, and was a sort of mistress of ceremonies, a role she shared with de Sade. At one point, she turned to the audience and spun a sob story about being short of money. Getting down into the stalls, she even asked one chap in the audience for money, and apparently he gave it to her! Twenty quid! Nothing much came of it, so I’ve no idea why that was included. At the post-show we found out she varies what she needs the money for. Tonight it was food, but it’s also been shoes and other things.

I might be willing to see another production of this play in the future, but it would probably have to take a different approach to tonight’s version. We couldn’t get a copy of the text – all sold out – so I can’t fill in the blanks and gauge the quality of the play itself. I suspect there’s a lot more there than was on show tonight, despite the blow job and de Sade’s wide-ranging wardrobe.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Cigarette – April 2009

6/10

By Simon Gray and Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 6th April 2009

I was torn between giving this production a 6 or 7/10 rating. The acting was very good, there was a lot of humour and some moving moments, yet overall I found it not as interesting as other pieces on the same subject; the John Diamond/Victoria Coren A Lump In My Throat, for example.

The set was a three-way split, with three identical desks, chairs, pile of books and pair of slippers carefully arranged along radiating patches of carpet. From what I could see (and from a surreptitious feel of the texture) the carpet was a basic mid-blue, with ray-shaped bands which had been speckled with gray paint, resembling cigarette ash. There was a large screen at the back, and although there was a selection of images to illustrate the story being told, the main image was that of a man, presumably Simon Gray himself. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, the image was blurred, with two identical pictures being projected slightly out of sync. It was mildly distracting, as I tried to figure it out at first, and then, once I’d realised what it was, I occasionally looked at it again when the offerings on stage weren’t so engrossing.

The three actors, Felicity Kendal, Jasper Britton and Nicholas le Provost, played three versions of the author. Like some gargantuan inner conversation, they took us on a reminiscence through Simon Gray’s life and some of the circumstances around his experience with cancer. The advantage of having three actors doing this was that the ‘spare’ ones could play the parts of the other people in each scene, and the down side to that was that I wasn’t always clear when they were back playing the author again. Felicity Kendal was the hardest for this; although she was very good as a man, so to speak, she naturally played all the woman’s parts required, and I sometimes found I lost track of who she was. But this is a minor quibble; the play was still very entertaining, and we enjoyed ourselves more than we’d expected to.

One more point. Having read one or two reviews beforehand, and at least one from a critic who’d known the man himself, I was glad that we hadn’t known him at all as we didn’t expect accurate impersonation, just a tribute in play form to his life and work. Which we got, and were well satisfied.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Oedipus – November 2008

8/10

By Sophocles, translated and adapted by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Olivier Theatre

Saturday 15th November 2008

What a journey we had to get here. The road past Haywards Heath station was closed off, so we had a long detour to reach it another way. Then there were roadworks outside Waterloo East that made us take another detour. At least, I thought, the Lyttelton performance will already have started, so the Ladies will be relatively empty. Not so; the Lyttelton performance was also starting at three o’clock, and the place was hoatching (Heaving, adjectival description of a busy location – Wikipedia). All this, and having to put our rucksacks into the cloakroom, meant we made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare. Still, as I told Steve, if we think we’re having a bad day, what about Oedipus? How we chuckled.

The set was fantastic, though I was a little distracted by its brilliance. We’d seen the dome taking shape in the workshops during a backstage tour, and now we could see it completed. It filled the centre of the Olivier stage, and was tipped slightly forward. The surface was like weathered copper, slightly roughened, and with patches of copper colour mixed with the green. It reminded me of a globe map, with the copper as land and the green as sea. There was a large doorway towards the back, facing the audience, with two vast metal doors between chunky posts and lintel, and to our left, near the front of the stage, was a long table with two matching benches. Panels at the back of the stage opened about four times when people arrived, one on each side, and each time there were trees on display. The first time they were all silver, the second time vultures had been added, and the third time they were golden autumn colours. The fourth time they were blasted stumps. (I hope they’re mentioned in the playtext, as I can’t remember exactly when they happened.)

The set used the slow revolve to perform a complete circle during the course of the play, finishing shortly before Oedipus arrives, covered in blood, for his final speeches of suffering. The table and benches didn’t move at all, however, and this was what distracted me briefly, as I looked for the groove that had to accommodate whatever was supporting the table. I spotted it fairly quickly, and I also noticed some of the chorus, when they were sitting on the benches, having to adjust their feet from time to time as the floor passed underneath them. Still, it was only a minor distraction.

The chorus was very good, with plenty of singing, chanting and speaking, often interleaving their lines. I thought the translation/adaptation was excellent. It kept the feel of a Greek tragedy, with some nicely poetic rhythmic lines, but also introduced some apposite modernisms, such as Creon saying he’d hang every terrorist. There were fine performances from Ralph Fiennes as the man who curses himself, and Clare Higgins as the mother who finds she’s married her son. Both were over-confident and scornful of the gods and prophecy, only to find the truth too much to bear. The other characters  were also very good, especially Jasper Britton as Creon, who, despite his apparently sincere declaration that he wasn’t seeking the top job, looked remarkably comfortable in the role once he’d got it. Also Alan Howard was powerful as Tiresias, the blind seer who gives Oedipus his first cryptic warnings of the doom to come. The question was asked several times, if Tiresias was so smart, how come he didn’t spill the beans a lot earlier and prevent all this suffering? Thebes is in a pretty bad way, crops not growing, women not having proper babies (buckets of blood were mentioned), and food apparently rotting in folk’s mouths (I assume this was poetic rather than literal). There’s no satisfactory answer to this question, except that Tiresias serves Apollo, so we’ll just have to assume that Laos, the previous king and Oedipus’s daddy, upset Apollo big time, and that’s why the entire family, and the country, suffers so much.

For Oedipus’s final appearance, the doors dropped down, and the panels at the back slid open to reveal emptiness. Oedipus gets a brief chance to be with his children, hugging his two little girls, before being sent inside on Creon’s orders, away from the public view. Creon tries to stop the girls from helping him, but I noticed that the elder – Antigone, I assume – escapes his clutches to lead her father off (she’ll defy Creon again, but that’s another play). The stage is left to the chorus and one or two of the other characters. As the chorus spreads out across the stage, the lights dim, and finally go out.

I love the way Greek drama is so direct. The characters speak lines that would rarely, if ever, come out of ordinary people’s mouths, yet, like Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, they can be so much more moving. Also, we get to hear all sorts of arguments and points of view debated and discussed. We do also have to put up with unpleasant violence and lots of deaths, but on the whole I think it’s a fair price to pay, especially as performances tend to come in under two hours. This production was well worth the effort to get here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Fram – May 2008

5/10

By Tony Harrison

Directed by Tony Harrison and Bob Crowley

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st May 2008

This was an interesting play, at least for the first half. The subject matter was relatively unknown to me, and the choice of characters seemed really weird until they all came together for the final scene before the interval. Perhaps I should mention here that Sian Phillips’s speech as Sybil Thorndike in that scene nearly put me off my ice cream! (I said nearly.)

The play starts in Westminster Cathedral. There’s a pillar with a marble decorated ledge, two large stained glass windows, one suspended at the front of the stage, the other at the back, and lots of echoing darkness. The stained glass windows were actually projections, which made them easy to remove and replace. The floor was covered with black cloth, also easily removed to reveal the arctic ice. Film projection was used quite a bit, both at the back and on a screen lowered towards the front of the stage. There was also a proscenium arch set with two side boxes, a drawing room type scenario (where Sybil gives her stomach-churning speech), and some good interpretations of snowy wastes. The first of these consisted of a central area with some jagged ice blocks sticking up at an angle, and lots of flat floes around it. The temporary hut was set up beside these blocks. Later, when Nansen and Johansen return to the Arctic, their ship, Fram (means “forward” in Norwegian), rises up majestically out of the floor, as the central part rotates. It was reasonably impressive, but I noticed that the ship’s masts were at right angles to the stage, although the ship itself was angled as if it were a submarine rising from the depths, and at speed. Very peculiar.

The play opens with the sounds of locks being turned, doors creaking open, and footsteps echoing along stone floors – slightly reminiscent of Tales of Old Dartmoor, a Goon classic. Eventually we get to see a character, Gilbert Murray, a dead professor who not only translated ancient Greek dramas into English verse, he also speaks the stuff, and at considerable length. He’s a little miffed that his translation of the Oresteia wasn’t used for the National’s production some years ago (funnily enough, they used Tony Harrison’s instead), but exceedingly miffed to find he’s buried only a short distance from T S Eliot, a man he obviously detested (and who didn’t speak highly of him).  Fortunately he gets another character to explain things to, and this is Sybil Thorndike. He tells her he’s writing a play, in verse, about Fridtjof Nansen, a man they both knew, and there’s a part for her in it. Nothing gets an actress’s attention quicker than that, and despite the total lack of a script, set, costumes, rehearsal time etc, she’s persuaded to join in this ‘improv’ piece. She’s none too happy when she finds her dress is the wrong colour and she’s only in one scene, but those come later. And given the amount of time she does spend on stage (and screen) it’s hardly a bit part.

Anyway, they head off to the National, and the screens at the back show us their progress, including their arrival at the entrance to the auditorium. It’s no surprise when they come down the side aisles, Sybil to our right, Gilbert to our left, although from the audience reaction, you’d have thought this was the first time it had ever been done.

I should mention that canned applause was used frequently throughout the production, and it’s a good job too, as this audience seemed reluctant to play the part of the audience within the play. With one notable exception, we restrained ourselves from laughing, clapping, oohing and ahhing as much as possible – I suspect I would have enjoyed the play more if the audience had been a bit more giving. In fact, there were noticeable gaps amongst us for the second half, and I don’t usually see so many folk leave during the applause at the end. From the first scene, I felt there were jokes that didn’t get a suitable response, and Steve and I reckon those who came just weren’t expecting so much humour. Ah well.

Once Gilbert and Sybil were on stage (again), there was some faffing about with a Greek tragedy mask before we get to meet the subject of the play, Fridtjof Nansen. The screen comes down, and we see a slide projected onto it – Nansen is giving a talk about his Arctic experiences. He gives us a reasonably long opening spiel, introduces us to his colleague from the ice, Johansen, then repeats the opening bit twice more, as slides for his talks in Newcastle and Aberdeen appear on either side of the London one. At least the audience was warming up a bit by this time, so we got a chance to laugh at the humour of the repetition.

The screen at the front also covered up the set changes behind, so when Nansen moves from slide show to dramatic reconstruction, all that’s needed is for the screen to lift, and for the black cloth to be surreptitiously whisked off to the wings, like some dead body being dragged away by an alien creature on Doctor Who.

Nansen and Johansen showed us their ‘roomy’ hut (it was tiny), their bear fur sleeping bag which they planned to split in two now they had the luxury of separate sides of the hut, and their complete inability to communicate with each other. They were described as each other’s opposite, with Johansen being the dark side of Nansen’s soul. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with either of them by choice, but I can see how extreme need makes for stranger bedfellows than ordinary necessity. Nansen believed that, as the seas were cooling, the planet would end up covered in ice and snow – everywhere would be like the Arctic. It’s a chilling prospect, though shot through with irony given current concerns about the climate, and it made him a less than comfortable companion. Johansen puts the blame for his own suicide squarely on Nansen’s shoulders; he claims it was the depressing effect of Nansen’s beliefs that led to his drinking and terminal despair. I can see the man’s point. However, being dead means nothing in this play, where ghosts have a remarkably physical presence, so Johansen isn’t gone. Oh no, he becomes Nansen’s conscience and biggest critic, and probably gets more lines in that role than he did when he was (supposedly) alive.

Nansen’s successful trip meant he was welcomed back to Norway as a great hero. His achievement (he reached furthest north) was surpassed a few years later, so he also faced the challenge of despair and discouragement. However, he avoided the bullet, and chose instead to focus his energies on helping the rest of humanity in any way he could. This leads to the scene in a open-plan drawing room, which was using the very slow revolve to subtly change the perspective. It took me some time to spot, and I find that sort of thing helpful in what are otherwise quite static scenes. Various characters were present, all deeply involved in the relief effort for Russian famine victims. There’s some debate about the best way forward – film, radio, newspapers, acting – and the scorn heaped on the influence of the actors is so great that Sybil has to show them what she’s made of. Her moving speech as a starving Russian woman and mother was a little too long, but was also tremendously powerful, and even stomach-churning. The descriptions of eating cooked human flesh have stayed with me longer than I would like, and her wrecking of the buffet was entirely appropriate, if somewhat messy. Delivered as it was by a well-nourished, well-dressed woman, this speech ably demonstrated the power of performance to move people, and Sian Thomas got the loudest round of applause for her superb acting when Sybil made her triumphant exit.

The second half showed us Nansen’s tour to raise awareness and funds to help with the famine relief effort. He was using the slide show again, only this time the pictures were horrific and sadly not unknown today. He left, and Johansen’s ghost harangued us for a while, exhorting us to look at the pictures in case one of the dead bodies moved. He also stomped off, leaving us with the picture of two dead bodies, supposedly a brother and sister. After a very long pause, there was indeed some movement, which was startling, but I have no idea what any of that was supposed to convey to the audience.

From there, Gilbert and Sybil returned to Westminster Abbey, and after reviling T S Eliot some more, they were interrupted by a Kurdish poet with his mouth sewn up (don’t ask me). He struggled to express himself, and that was that. For a final scene, we get to see Nansen and Johansen on the ice again, this time on Fram, as it rose up from the depths. God knows what that bit was about. Nansen meets a couple of African kids, who’ve apparently been frozen to death because they stowed away in the undercarriage recess on a plane, and were taken too high to survive. The idea of these two being explorers of the frozen air appeals to Nansen; didn’t do it for me, though.

There was also a ballet during the first half, an actual ballet, inspired by Nansen’s drawings of the aurora borealis. It went on too long for me, as ballet has never been my thing, although I’m sure the dancer did a great job.

The ooh moment came during Nansen’s second slide show. To soften us up, he commented that when he showed his pictures of the animals on his arctic expeditions, it was only in England that people went… and the audience this time obliged with an “ahh” (a particularly lovely husky was on the screen at that point).

The performances were all fine, given the tedious nature of some of the dialogue, and the confusing jumble of symbolism and realistic, biography and fantasy. The constant use of rhyming couplets can jar after a while, especially when the rhymes are emphasised, as they often were here. There were a lot of in jokes, mainly to do with the Olivier itself, and although we got most of them, it did take the emphasis completely away from the subject matter, assuming the subject matter was something to do with Nansen and his career. The time spent on the ice was less than I’d expected from the pre-publicity, especially as almost all the photos used that part of the set. It was spectacular enough, although not the only good aspect of the set design.

Overall, it was a disappointing play with some good scenes, which could do with some serious editing if it wants a life beyond the Olivier stage.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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