The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studio 2 Spring 2015
It is no surprise that Strindberg's 1887 drama paints a dark and ugly picture of marriage, as the playwright's pessimism and misogyny are central to his reputation. What does come as a shock is the play's continuing power to horrify and perhaps even to win us over to his rage-filled view of the war between the sexes.
And while Laurie Slade's new adaptation and Abbey Wright's production cannot fully disguise some of the ways the playwright's passion sometimes gets in the way of his dramaturgy, the play's relentless attack on sentimentality and complacency is undiminished by time.
The title character is paranoid, his mind shaken by the conviction that his wife is plotting and conspiring with others to drive him mad and seize the power in the household.
The revelation that he's right is one of the play's first shocks, and the drama then forces us into a kind of doublethink, recognising that the wife's eventually open villainy does not negate the fact of the husband's mental unbalance.
At the centre of the battle, as the title suggests, is the couple's daughter. With even less evidence than it took to drive Othello mad, Strindberg's protagonist becomes convinced that his beloved daughter isn't his – or, rather, that he can never know for sure whether she is, which is even worse.
After planting this seed of doubt the wife encourages it to grow, while subtly guiding innocent observers like the new town doctor and her husband's old nanny to interpret his behaviour in ways that most benefit her campaign for dominance.
Strindberg does pay some lip service to fairness by giving the wife some justification for her hatred, but there is little doubt where his sympathies – and empathies – lie. The portrait of an imperfect and perhaps unstable man being driven over the edge by pure malice does evoke the image of Othello, and carries some of that play's tragic power.
Laurie Slade's adaptation modernises the language a bit, including a few grating (because clashing with the tone of the rest) obscenities, and breaks some of Strindberg's longer speeches into more natural-sounding conversations.
But it contains too many abrupt shifts in tone and style and too many sudden changes in the characters' emotions and behaviour – all of which I'm prepared to believe are in the original, but which it would have been nice to smooth over a bit.
It is a measure of the father's instability that he is prone to sudden bursts of anger or despair, but his wife and other characters can also leap up or down in emotional intensity without warning or transition.
Meanwhile everyone's style of speaking is likely to shift from realistic to intensely passionate to aphoristic to philosophical to poetical and around the loop again, frequently all within a single speech.
Both these things – the abrupt changes in emotion and in speaking style – pose special challenges to the director and actors attempting to create a reality and move the play forward.
In the title role Alex Ferns admirably sustains the uncertainty about the man's mental balance even as that forces him to play one scene or even moment against another.
Emily Dobbs has the different challenge of keeping the wife from becoming a one-dimensional villain, which she meets by doling out glimpses of her darkness and rage to continually shock us.
June Watson has one very strong scene as the loving nanny tricked into a dreadful betrayal, though the rest of the supporting cast sometimes seem unsure where they're supposed to stand or why they're actually onstage at that moment.
It is in some trivial ways dated – the thought of DNA tests can't help running through your mind – and occasionally clumsy, and there will be parts of you that will resist being convinced by its dark vision of sexual warfare. But this strong production demonstrates the play's undiminished passion and power.
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Review - The Father - Trafalgar Studios 2015