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September 18, 2006

Strindberg's The Father exhibits the politics of the caveman - yet it is a brilliant, engrossing play, argues Richard D. North: August Strindberg's The Father at Chichester

Posted by Richard D. North

August Strindberg's The Father (1890)
adapted by Mike Poulton (2006)
Minerva Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester
7th - 30th September 2006

The Minerva, Chichester's second stage, is a fine venue. A decent crowd, not too small or large, gather round a floor which is surprisingly big. Its been a circus for the Brothers Marquez's I Caught My Death in Venice directed by Martin Duncan in 2003 - and in 2002 was the old deceiver's study and more for Corin Redgrave's masterly if inaccurate Blunt Speaking. So pitching up for this Strindberg was not that much of a long-shot: the space already seemed ripe with expectation.

What's more, rather late and as a matter of happenstance, I had already fallen in love with Strindberg's paintings. I had, in short, already shrugged off a wholly ignorant prejudice that this was just a gloomy Swede with angst-ridden ways of whiling away the long winter nights.

Still, The Father was a revelation. Unless Mike Poulton has worked a modernising, Anglicising and witticising magic which belies the original, Strindberg's piece is as accessible as anything written in our time. The first act has jokes, and they're real laugh-out-loud moments. The play would bear comparison with Stoppard's The Real Thing (not as funny of course and lots less woman-friendly) or Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour (a 2003 National Theatre outing in which Corin Redgrave outdid himself). It is a story - and a story does unfold - of love-gone-wrong, but on that is hung proper argument. We watch an intelligent and thoughtful man, good with everyone except his wife, try to give his daughter a decent if unambitious start in life. His wife has grander ideas for the young woman, and doesn't mind who she sinks in the process.

From the start, we like Adolf, a middle rank cavalry officer running some sort of barracks out in the sticks. He's obviously civilised and tolerantly atheistic. He has the air of a man who can whip up a fair show of anger, but may not be able to do so much longer. It emerges that he's rather a good scientist (a geologist, so at the cutting edge of Darwinite secularity), or would be if his wife Laura didn't keep him strategically starved of books. Littered around his house there is a regiment of women - in every nook a granny, or nanny - who are filled up with trolls and notions. They have nearly made his daughter mad with fears and dreads: they may be religious, but it's pagan spirits which energise them. Michelle Tate as Bertha, the daughter, is brilliantly spooky: sort of alert and wary at once, like a spaniel that's had a kicking out of sight of home.

Jasper Britton's Adolf reveals himself to be weak, loving, forceful, temperamental and clever by turns. Britton is never fazed by the demands on his credulity or ours: he has a proper actor's voice which can soar and whisper and cry out but remain audible and masculine throughout. He has a plasticine and willowy physical presence which can cower and writhe but remain convincingly military.

Plainly, we are watching Enlightenment Man confronting Woman: and she's Neanderthal, possessive, scheming and utterly focused on her own needs, which are mostly to do with what she thinks right for her child. Strindberg is even-handed, up to a point. We sense that if Adolf had been a bit more forceful, he might have retained the upper hand

It says a great deal for the strength and warmth of Teresa Banham's Laura that she makes us smell the weakness in Adolf into which she has catastrophically fallen. She is criminal and wicked in her manipulativeness, and she does in the end drive Adolf to madness. But she sleep-walks there, we feel. She could have been any other sort of woman - intellectual in her own right, or supportive of Adolf's work at least - if he had not backed away from her strength very early on. ("I've never met the man I can't look down on", she declares.) Indeed, it emerges that it was his self-doubt that set her off on the path of domination.

I don't know whether it has become impossible to criticise womanhood, qua womanhood, but in any case, it's fair to say that Strindberg's complaint in The Father is as much about manliness. It is all too easy for Adolf to revert to childishness. He thinks his old nanny can support him with her love, and she agrees, witheringly:

… nothing you do will turn me against you. You’re still my little boy. I'm afraid that's all you'll ever be.
But the overall point remains misogynist: if men have to be strong to make women happy, and that's the only way to stop them being silly or nasty, that's still what many people would call the politics of the caveman (and cave-woman).

What we can't really suggest is that Strinberg is terribly out of date. Adolf and Laura are probably alive and well in households everywhere. Sure, we don't have quite the Bible-thumping and witchifying we used to. For lots of moderns, crystallology has replaced Christology and plenty of women place more faith in colonic irrigation than Calvary. We may suspect that Strinberg had a problem with women, and that may have had to do with the time and place he lived in. Still, you could take the proto-Freudianism down a notch and still find this play - especially this wonderful performance of it - very engrossing.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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