Miss Julie – July 2014

Preview performance

Experience: 6/10

By Strindberg in a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Jamie Glover

(Paired with Black Comedy)

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 7th July 2014

I was the one nodding off this time. Whether it was just tiredness or a lack of energy on stage I don’t know, but this is certainly a difficult play to follow if you don’t give it your full attention. It meanders about and presents us with people whose background and expectations are very different from our own. There’s no clear unravelling of a plot, and if we don’t feel some kind of sympathy or understanding for the main characters it can be a hard struggle to find anything to enjoy. From the pre-show talk with Jamie Glover (a few days later) we learned that the preview phase can bring about many changes as the audience gives its feedback; perhaps we’ll see something different on our next viewing.

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Easter – April 2012

7/10

By August Strindberg

Directed by Michael Friend

Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 20th April 2012

I was keen to watch this Strindberg play, one we haven’t seen before. The play is set over an Easter weekend, on Good Friday, Saturday and the Easter Sunday. The family set up is quite complicated, but we learned most of the details early on, and although some of the exposition was a bit clunky, it was very necessary. Elis Heyst, a teacher, is living in a house on a small town with his mother, his fiancée Kristina, and one of his students, Benjamin, who has to live with them because his family’s money was embezzled by Elis’s father who has been jailed for fraud. Elis’s family are themselves in debt, up to their eyeballs and beyond, to Lindqvist, a man who arrived in the town years ago, penniless, and who worked his way up to a position of wealth and prominence. He apparently owns their house and contents (the exact nature of this contract wasn’t fully clear), and Elis had to suffer the double whammy of a former pupil being rewarded as a result of stealing Elis’s own work, together with the possibility of a visit from Lindqvist to throw them out of their house.

Things don’t work out quite like that, of course, and with the theme being Easter, forgiveness and reconciliation are likely to be the order of the day. There’s plenty of suffering before the conclusion, mind you, mostly on Elis’s part and mostly brought about by his own silly attitudes, and while this isn’t the most negative Strindberg I’ve seen, it certainly paints a bleak picture of life in Sweden at the time. We also meet his sister Eleanora, who turns up out of the blue after being apparently released from her asylum; she buys a flower in such a way that it seems to be have been stolen – there was no one in the shop at the time, so she just left some money which wasn’t discovered at first – and the threat of being discovered and arrested hangs over her for the second half of the play.

The set was pretty basic, as usual with Michael Friend productions, but nicely done all the same. The front door was far left, with a window at right angles beside it. There was a table to the right of that with a typewriter on it, and further to the right was a dining table with a couple of chairs. The exit to the kitchen was far right. Front and left was another table with two chairs, and there were a few other items giving a homely feel to the place.

The performances were fine. Richard Jackson as Elis had to deliver most of the exposition, so his character took longer to establish than the others, and I didn’t get so much of a feel for his emotional journey. The other characters were more rounded, and I particularly liked the detail in Liz Garland’s Kristina and also Roger Sansom’s Lindqvist – not a lot of stage time for him, but he made an impact even so. It was a good performance – this company always punches above its weight – and we enjoyed catching this less well known piece.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Creditors – October 2008

7/10

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

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