Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 14 October 2017
A PSYCHOTIC SAMSON AND HIS WOMEN – “There is no such thing as the imagination” says August Strindberg indignantly. “Things are real or they are not.” Right now, holed up in a shabby hotel room in Paris in 1896 the exiled Swedish playwright is grappling with reality and illusion, his dignity gone, green-speckled feet poking from grimy long-johns beneath an alchemist’s leather apron.
He converses angrily with a strange sharp insulting voice he himself utters – “my anti-me” which lives in the wall and is in league with unseen electrical forces trying to thwart his mission to find the Philosophers’ Stone and turn base metals into gold in the hotel bath. And now on top of these unseen forces, the poor man is being hounded by women.
First a pert and scornful maid (Laura Morgan, very sharp) invades the room, then one after another his two wives turn up, indignantly recounting, re-living and reanimating their turbulent past. Issues range from mere infidelities to crimes like his putting the first one – Siri – insultingly into a plays and a novel, and as his scientific mania grew, going round the park injecting the flowers with morphine to prove they have nervous systems. And sending his children recipes for levitation involving crushed ants and vinegar, which upset their stomachs. Ah yes, it was not only our millennium angst that spawned barmy New-Ageism: there was another one a century earlier.
This is a terrific coup for director Tom Littler’s debut as artistic director of the little Jermyn Theatre, now becoming a full producing-house. He commissioned this extraordinary 90-minuter from no less a writer than Howard Brenton, whose thoughtful but light-handed gift for historical reimagining goes back to The Romans In Britain, and more recently such hits as Anne Boleyn and Dr Scroggy’s War at the Globe, 55 Days and Ai Wei Wei at Hampstead. The preoccupation with Strindberg’s mysterious breakdown of Strindberg is well-researched but, as importantly, dazzlingly imagined. Against screens of iridescent fiery colour, real conversations with the women are abruptly blue-lit as interludes of delusion, their voices and tones changing accordingly; they rail and insult or seduce. Susannah Harker’s wonderful matronly, irritated Siri drips wifely scorn with lines like “Don’t let this slide into your suicide thingy!” and he rails right back, accusing her of a lesbian affair with a woman he detests – “that freethinking horror!” . When Gala Gordon as the slinkier Frida (for whom he left Siri) appears in turn, he is most furious that she slept with Frank Wedekind, though she protests that the fling was merely a quick beer compared to the champagne of Strindberg. Indeed neatly in passing Brenton evokes that rich troubled period: Freud and Munch and l Ibsen, Swedenborg and Schopenhauer, and the couples’ time in louche Berlin and Paris, respectable Stockholm and dreary Gravesend. (Yep, he went there with Frida in 1893, I looked it up – 12 Pelham Road, Frida was seasick and he hated the double bed).
It is altogether a great treat. And Jasper Britton as the crumbling colossus, the psychotic Samson at its heart, is perfect. There is real pain and buoyant playfulness, and beneath the maddest moments a sense of a poet and thinker so avid for change and experiment that on hitting a creative and personal wall, he had to reinvent himself through this crazy psychosis in order to emerge and make something fresh..
And there’s a grandeur, beyond the vigour and earthiness and jokes and shocks of this tumbling ninety-minute journey through madness. Brenton’s Strindberg expresses what all artists seek: “The transformation of what was base and dull and compromised, ambiguous, into incorruptible gold”. Fabulous. Gold or not, this one will last.
Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk