During the latter half of the 19th century, the possibilities within theatre were redefined by two Scandinavian playwrights – Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Both men made their name with telling ‘the unadulterated truth’ about the relationships between men and women, and faced adversity from the mores of the time. But while Ibsen’s interest lay in challenging commonly-held views about women and their place in society, Strindberg – once an advocate of women’s rights – was villfied in his later years and accused in some quarters of being a mysogynist. In any case, the relationships with his former wives laid heavily upon his mind – how they manifested in various forms of his work and no true closure from the past…
All photos © Bob Workman
The Blinding Light is the inaugural production of Jermyn Street Theatre under the tutelage of its latest artistic director, Tom Littler. Its themes of endings and rebirth make it an apt play for this chapter of the theatre’s history, shedding new light on a forgotten period of the past. The play’s author, Howard Brenton, was championed in his early career by the late Sir Peter Hall and has a long-standing track record for being uncompromising and forthright – qualities that haven’t been universally appreciated. His latest play charts Strindberg’s ‘Inferno’ phase – a period where Strindberg turned his back on his life in the theatre and took up residence in Paris, pursuing the archaic ‘science’ of alchemy.
Living in self-imposed exile from humanity, Strindberg (Jasper Britton) thinks he’s ‘under surveillance’ by the ‘Powers’ who want to thwart his present, post-theatrical pastime and have their own agenda – much like the protagonists of authors such as Franz Kafka and Philip K Dick. Strindberg’s solitude, however, is disrupted by visits from three women: Lola (Laura Morgan) – a hotel cleaner, Siri (Susannah Harker) – his first ex-wife and mother to his three children, and Frida (Gala Gordon) – his most recent, free-spirited ex. The significance of the visits by the women has a Dickensian quality, though more than one paradigm adequately explains their presence.
There are a few oblique references in the play to the 19th century’s nascent psychoanalytical movement and to a state of mind that’s always existed: ‘paranoia’. There is also a clock that’s present on stage, but its absent hands hint at Strindberg’s own mental health (a tell-tale sign of losing grip on reality is the inability to instinctively gauge the duration of time).
The former wives warn Strindberg that his present path of paranoia and alchemy will inevitaby lead to psychiatric intervention. Could these women represent his id, ego and superego, pulling his wants and desires in all directions? Or perhaps a Jungian explanation is more fitting, the women collectively representing his ‘anima’ – the ‘female’ part of his subconscious – tempered by his most intense relationships? Then there is obvious link during this ‘Inferno’ period with the Sartrean notion that “Hell is other people” and that just like the Parisians in Huis Clos, Strindberg and his female company are to spend the rest of their time together taking apart the details of their former lives…
The Blinding Light dwells for periods on the vernacular of alchemy and we see Strindberg use it in the same way William Blake utilised established signifiers to apportion ideas of personal symbolic significance. However, the play truly comes alive when Strindberg is verbally sparring with the three visitors. Unencumbered by convention, they all confront Strindberg about aspects of his behaviour, past and present, and about the future.
Outside of monied ‘society’, Lola cuts through Strindberg’s ‘intellectual’ rhetoric to get to the heart of the matter, while Frida reminds him of a time when he didn’t take life so seriously and lived in the moment. With Siri, however – who is inextricably linked to his plays, as well as his personal life – their banter is the heart of the play. Not only does she hold him accountable for using their privates lives as grist for his plays and other writing, she gets him to admit that what he finds most important isn’t telling the ‘facts’ truthfully, but recalling how events made him feel – a running thread throughout his work pre- and post-‘Inferno’. For better or worse, the women in his life are his muses. This epiphany, this ‘blinding light’ will save his sanity.
The four-strong cast are well-suited in their respective roles and as Strindberg himself would have wished, they elicit the emotional truthfulness of this surreal ‘dark night of the soul’.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Blinding Light runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 14th October.