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Review: The Stronger After Strindberg

Sat 31 Oct 2015 In: Performance View at Wayback View at NDHA

The Stronger After Strindberg By Nathan Joe Directed by Patrick Graham Presented by Theatrewhack at Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland from 28 Oct 2015 to 30 Oct 2015; andThe Lucha Lounge, 1 York St Newmarket, Auckland from 4 Nov 2015 to 7 Nov 2015 Johan August Strindberg was a polymath, no doubt about it. While best known outside his native Sweden as a playwright he was also a novelist, a poet, an essayist, a painter, a telegrapher, theosophist, photographer and alchemist. During the four decades of his working life he wrote over sixty plays, mostly based on his own experience, and more than thirty works of fiction.   Best known today for Miss Julie, and his expressionist works A Dream Play, The Dance of Death and The Ghost Sonata, Strindberg was an innovator and breaker of moulds, equally at home in naturalistic, expressionistic or surreal mode.   He rejected the concept of the ‘well-made play' in favour of character-driven drama and made far-reaching attempts to engage with a deeper human psychology by abolishing the long-established conventions of dramatic time and space by splitting, doubling, merging, and proliferating his characters.  When Eugene O'Neill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, he dedicated much of his acceptance speech to describing Strindberg's influence on his work and referred to him as “that greatest genius of all modern dramatists”. High praise indeed but O'Neill was not alone in his praise, as the great modern masters Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Maxim Gorky, John Osbourne and Ingmar Bergman also acknowledge his expert influence on their work. Strindberg had wildly fluctuating attitudes to women, ranging from support for women's suffrage in Sweden as early as 1884 which changed to extreme misogyny when he demanded, later in his life, that lawmakers reconsider the emancipation of these “half-apes, mad, criminal, instinctively evil animals.” Yes, he was a charmer. It has to be acknowledged, though, that he did have a singular understanding of the duplicity of society's gender roles and sexual morality despite the many issues that seem to have generated from his three short and seemingly unhappy marriages and his legacy of great roles for women has to be respected. Strindberg's troubles with both censors and women are explicitly documented in his semi-autobiographical novel Inferno, written in French while he lived in Paris (1896-97), which obliquely examines his many fixations, exposes his paranoia and highlights a powerful persecution complex. But there is some evidence that suggests he invented and exaggerated much of the content simply for theatrical effect. A noted imbiber of absinthe, it is generally recognised that this had a sizeable impact on his mental health during this key period of his creative output.  But enough about him, and on to this Patrick Graham-directed, Theatrewhack production of a fascinating new work by Nathan Joe which overlaps, and at times replicates, Strindberg's personal life and his writing in often uncanny, but no doubt intentional, ways. The above brief depiction of Strindberg the artist and Strindberg the man is essential to a full recognition of both Graham's and Joe's achievement. Theatrewhack, by its own admission, will never be mainstream. The company, we are told, “always attempts to experiment with the way the audience engages with the play” and this philosophy aligns itself perfectly with Strindberg's own philosophy. When he founded The Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907 he did so with a view to changing the audience experience of chamber plays. He didn't go as far as Theatrewhack does but he did limit the audience seating to 160 – small houses were rare at that time – and insisted on short performances without an intermission. Theatrewhack expands on this by creating intimate promenade theatre pieces where the audience move to where the play is happening.  For The Stronger (after Strindberg) this involves four different areas of the Basement Theatre foyer and bar and also an upstairs dressing room where we experience different aspects of a life in the theatre and theatre folk. The theatre bar is an excellent and innovative choice of venue but one that comes with its own unique set of challenges. More of this later. In his programme notes, playwright Nathan Joe tells us that the first of his five scenes is a modernisation of Strindberg's original which consists of only one scene. The characters are two women, Mrs X who speaks and Miss Y who remains silent. Mrs X (Catherine, played by Kirsty Hamilton) is a voluble chatterbox and a delight to listen to. Her audience – not counting the actual audience – is Miss Y (Amelia, played by Kelly Gilbride). Both women are enchanting but sadly much of the text is lost due to the timing of the exit from the main Basement house – ironically Ionesco's The Lesson – ensuring a thoughtless babble of drinkers and smokers swamps any degree of subtlety these excellent actors may be aspiring to. More by chance than good management, I suspect, the outcome is of overhearing snippets of conversation in a crowded room which, in itself, is not uninteresting and well within the scope of Theatrewhack's oeuvre to create. What I do hear leads me to believe that Hamilton is on top form and remains one of the most watchable actors currently working in the city. Gilbride is an excellent listener, doing just enough to maintain a narrative flow that fully supports the text and the action, at once bored, distracted, attentive and empathic but never falling into the trap of working too hard.  Then it's upstairs for Scene 2 which is set in a comfy, cushioned dressing room decorated with larger-than-life cartoon characters and with light, mirrors, costume, make-up cases and all the detritus of a post-show occasion. There's alcohol too and the actress known as Rae (the loquacious Jacqui Whall) seems to have had more than her share. It's the final night and Rae is going through all the recognisable phases of self-doubt and angst that seem to accompany such occasions. She burbles on about her career, her astonishing talent and her life to Stage Manager Beth (Courtney Eggleton) who is an accepting, if somewhat overt, listener. It's a sad story told with Chekhovian joie de vivre and we really feel for her. Only theatre people would fully understand the angst that surrounds a final night and when it accompanies the possibility of the final curtain coming down on a career it's doubly touching. Whall is superb in the role and captures more than a hint of the majestic grande dame: a species that seems to have expired utterly in recent years. It's during this scene that the talent of Nathan Joe really starts to reveal itself. His text is multi-layered and ever so playable, even in the form of a complex set of monologues. He creates great comedy much of which ends in pathos and, while Rae is a character we laugh at (and with), he never allows her to become totally a figure of fun. There's a wee mad scene from Miller's The Crucible which is excruciatingly funny followed by a wry throw-away “one more night and it's back to the real world”. More self-deprecating stuff follows: “Did you think I was absolutely wonderful?”; “I didn't choose acting, it chose me” and finally, “Never let an actor go on and on.” Whall slides easily from her English-toned, produced ‘acting voice' and her slight Kiwi twang and it's good to hear the Kiwi accent so honoured. Now it is appropriate to hear the murmuring laughter from the bar below and this adds a delicate texture to the scene that Strindberg himself would have loved.  Back down the wooden stairs to the bar we go and, mercifully, the worst of the vocal irritation has drifted off into the sodden night, leaving an almost empty, diffusely lit space with a barman leaning on his bar and sombrely engaging with his iPhone. Again, as if intended, it fits the tone of the piece and I realise how fully engaged I have become. It's arcane material and seriously adult but I note my thirteen year old son is totally engaged too which says a lot for the accessibility of the work, the excellence of the direction and the quality of the acting. Also in the bar, seated at a leaner, is Writer (Joe, played by James Crompton) and Stage Manager Beth. There's been some hoo-hah involving alcohol, offended friends and other social griefs for which a rather whiney Joe is apologising. Beth's having none of it and clearly Joe has a lot of work to do to repair the broken bridges. He sets about doing so by talking about “the gremlins” and his local theatre mates – “at least they are a community” – and trying not to be too pissed which is actually very funny. Crompton is a fine actor and, in this case, he succeeds in ensuring we really don't like Joe one little bit. It's great scripting and, thanks to Nathan Joe – yes, both writers are called Joe – we now have some new, quality monologues to suggest to aspiring actors for audition pieces. Crompton takes us down the path of pretentiousness and sublime self-pity with “do you think I'm a joke?” and lines such as “the choice between artistic purity and pure love” and “it's not just lofty ambition amounting to nothing” tell us all we need to know about Joe and his dreams. Again, it's Chekhovian in the richness of its comedy and, while we never really get to like Joe, we sure as hell feel sorry for him in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I' sort of way.  Strindberg once described himself, as Joe the Writer labels himself too, a “failed author”. Strindberg wrote, “I feel like a deaf-mute. I cannot speak and am not permitted to write; sometimes I stand in the middle of my room that seems like a prison cell, and then I want to scream so that walls and ceilings would fly apart, and I have so much to scream about, and therefore I remain silent.” Joe the playwright has written Joe the Writer in such a way that the parallels with Strindberg himself are unmissable. It's clever stuff. More than that, it has an intelligent authenticity that is as admirable as it is artistically weighty. By now I am leaning on the back wall of the bar with my note pad and pen and directly behind the divine Mark Oughton, who is seated at another leaner. I'm suddenly aware that he is the speaker in Scene 4, the Critic Anthony, that he's being stared down by a very angry Alex the Director (Kirsty Hamilton) and that I (the actual critic) am also in her direct line of sight. Discomfort follows as the scene unfolds and I again quietly applaud Theatrewhack's decision to stage this work in the bar. Anthony the Critic has given Alex the Director's latest play a thorough pasting – and he's doing his best to apologise to her by lauding his own integrity and reminding her that “it's always the negative comments that people remember.” There's also a hint that he's trying to engage with her sexually but this is so not a happening thing! There are moments of acute self-knowledge – “God, maybe I am a prick” – and regret – “The last thing I wanted was to shit all over it” (her production) – alongside some pretty accurate observations about luvvies and their after-show behaviour, “nodding and smiling in some self-congratulatory circle-jerk.” The seesaw power balances of the earlier scenes come into stark relief as we see Anthony floundering under the unbending and contemptuous gaze of Alex the Director and again I find myself in awe of what this team has created. Anthony the Critic concludes with a line that has echoed in my head all day: “My reviews,” he says, “are nothing personal, they just take them personally.” I'm suddenly alert to the modern interactive review environment where the spoken about have the capacity to talk back – and long may that continue (but please be gentle). Oughton is splendid, authoritative yet at the same time insecure, and with good reason because Hamilton gives a masterclass in supressed hostility by doing virtually nothing at all. She allows the narrative and the text to do the work and for us to fill in most of the gaps while she ices the cake with minimalistic touches and an intensity that almost hurts.  The final scene moves to the bar where Stage Manager Beth and Amelia from Scene 1 connect in a deliciously subtle, full circle fashion. It's a hook up scene where Beth speaks for the first time and where the spoken and unspoken text is anchored in a delightful ‘will-she, won't-she', young girl crush. It's the closest thing to a happy ending we could wish for in a Strindberg lookalike as the show devolves into a charming curtain call and some very satisfying applause. The Stronger (after Strindberg) is an excellent contemporary exploration of a great theatre work where the new text is as rich and evocative as the original. This creative team has worked together successfully a number of times now and the confident ease with which they do so under Patrick Graham's subtle leadership is a pleasure to engage with. The work is intelligent, thoughtful and unashamedly serious when it needs to be. The acting is of the highest standard and Graham's direction exposes the text and, in this case, the riches that lie fallow in active silence.  If you've missed The Stronger (after Strindberg) this time around you do get a second chance to view this 50 minute gem because it's being re-staged next week at Newmarket's Lucha Lounge. So, if you appreciate quality performances with the some real emotional grunt, you would be wise to get on down to have a look. It's as close to classic Strindberg in a contemporary setting as you'll see in a month of Sundays. This review also appears on Lexie Matheson - 31st October 2015    

Credit: Lexie Matheson

First published: Saturday, 31st October 2015 - 12:58pm

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