Jermyn Street Theatre, London – in rep until 1 June 2019
The artistic love affair between August Strindberg’s ghost, playwright Howard Brenton and director Tom Littler continues to bear strange fruit, surprisingly exhilarating. There was Brenton’s brilliant portrait of the playwright’s breakdown in The Blinding Light, some Dances of Death, and now the return of their Miss Julie (revived in rep with this one). And as a penultimate rendering – for they still plan another – we get this furious three-hander .
It is set on the usual godforsaken Nordic island with a ferry expected, on which has arrived Gustaf (a suave David Sturzaker) who the ex-husband of the lovely and worryingly independent Tekla. She’s away, so he’s playing mind-games with her new, younger artist husband Adolf (James Sheldon). In their long, horribly funny opening colloquy, the most evil of male-bonding demonstrations, he persuades the poor sap of the following fallacies:
That he is there to support and save him;
That he must stop painting because the new era requires the more realistic medium of sculpture (evidence onstage suggests the poor sap is not much good at it: there’s one rather porny female shape there and a lot of spoiled clay);
That the only hope of avoiding death from a painful “epilepsy” is to abstain from sexual congress, because “skirts” are a terrible trap and woman is “a man who’s incomplete, a child who stops growing, an anaemic who haemhorrages 13 times a year… what can you expect from such a creature?”
This, highly entertaining in Brenton’s vivid language, is the first part of the 90 minute play. Next, Gustaf sneaks off, Tekla arrives – a confident and rather cheerful figure played with brio by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, who will become the rather sourer Miss Julie in the other play. She and Adolf have an equally stressed-out, ambiguous, sexually confused conversation. At one glorious moment, Adolf emotes at great length about how he supported her career as a novelist and wore his own artistic soul out doing it, whereon she snaps:
“Are you saying you wrote my books?” and he moans: “For five minutes I’ve tried to lay out the nuances, the halftones of our relationship…”
Goodness, it could be any Hampstead media power-couple falling out today. As Adolf limps off for some fresh air, Gustaf returns and tries to get Tekla on his side, but she’s not falling for it. Or is she?
Forgive my levity. But an undertow of deliberate comedy is certainly there in Brenton and Littler’s fascination with poor crazy furious brilliant August Strindberg. They relish lines like “You vindictive bastard! “ “You dissolute tart!” And arter all, themes of sexual intensity, and furious confusion about who in a marriage owes what to whom, are actually timeless. And the mutual rants are rather refreshing, in an age when none of us is allowed to be that rude and unreasonable for fear or triggering some wuss.
Fair enough. Angst is a reasonable mindset when the original author is broke, furious, hanging out in a derelict castle in the middle of Nordic nowhere in 1888 with three young children, a wife, a psychopathic fake gipsy and a dodgy Countess. Moreover Strindberg, like his hated rival Ibsen, was struggling violently and not unreasonably to escape the 19th century and its dead-end sexual and marital mores. Not to mention trying to come to terms with his own stormy head.
But for heavens sake buy, and keep , the programme-playscript: the essay on the rival Nordic furies by Brenton is both informative and hilarious.
Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
playing in rep with Miss Julie to 1 June
rating three , as it’s mainly worth it as a well-delivered curiosity .
Here’s a troubled Strindberg bonus mouse though, writing rapidly in a fury