Writer: Howard Brenton
Director: Tom Littler
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
“The kidneys were revolutionary.”
Playwright Howard Benton has managed the neat trick of turning out some of the most preposterous, indulgent dialogue imaginable for his lead character, and making it seem not only perfectly acceptable but a key element of what makes this a beautiful piece of theatre.
Tackling the Swedish writer Auguste Strindberg’s battle with sanity, with alchemy, and with poetry (not to mention his ex-wives) in a period when he had given up the theatre and launched into scientific investigation, the play is a rich and cerebral journey of language and jarring shocks. He is a lonely figure in his Parisien hotel room, some time in the 1890s, stewing in paranoia and the fumes from his alchemical experiments. The visits from his former wives, and the hotel maid are tinged with a shared history of infidelity, violence, sex, hypocrisy and love as well as healthy dose of surreal argument and conversations that are not really happening. Filthy clothes and hair, stained hands – he’s a wild man physically and intellectually and played by Jasper Britton, he’s a mesmerizing force to witness.
Exploring his psyche – through clear research into the subject’s personal history and adding in plenty of biography – Brenton and Britton (with director Tom Littler) have created a portrait of not just the writer, but of the social scene he and the ladies lived though. Describing the scrappy life of an artist living in a hotel in Paris, the art scene in Berlin, the money, the aristos, the vibrancy of the period and their peers, all comes together in a snappy 90 minutes. An audience will leave the theatre exhausted, but giddily entertained with their trip through insanity and the tricks played on them by a production that wants to blur the lines between reality and imagination – even as Auguste notes: “There is no such thing as the imagination”.
Creating a script where the kidney line was not only a perfect fit, but also far from the oddest image among a selection of surreal ideas (“you cannot imagine the pain of a tree being cut down”) that also drives a tender storyline about a man’s difficulties and the care his ex-wives take for him was a tough ask. With excellent lighting design from William Reynolds and a set from Cherry Truluck, the success of the team with this endeavour is framed in a brilliant setting.
Susannah Harker as the aristocrat Auguste stole from her husband before marrying her and having several children is a stern but impish figure. She’s a contrast to the free-love Apostle and moneyed society girl he left her for, his second wife Frida, played by Gala Gordon. Laura Morgan makes up the rest of the quartet as a brassy, charismatic, dangerously flirtatious hotel maid – potentially wife number three?
Gorgeous language that is both ridiculous and exactly right for the production is a reason alone to go and see this play. The characters, the descriptions (visual and verbal) of insanity and mental instability, the intensity of Britton’s performance and the compelling biography of Strindberg are all others. Certainly more than the sum of these parts, this new commission by the Jermyn Theatre is an absolute treat.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Robert Workman