thu 02/07/2020

The Father, Trafalgar Studios | reviews, news & interviews

The Father, Trafalgar Studios

The Father, Trafalgar Studios

Rarely performed Strindberg war-of-the-sexes drama misses the mark

Robert Wilfort as the Pastor and Alex Ferns as the Captain in Strindberg's 'The Father' Simon Annand

This 1887 domestic drama by August Strindberg is rarely seen in London, and Abbey Wright’s new production of Laurie Slade’s new version might have seized the opportunity to give this gristly chunk of pre-Freudian sexual polemic a thorough 21st-century shake-up. That chance is missed.

Instead of bracing modernity (the play would have startled its first audiences with its naturalism), we’re presented with a historical hybrid of a world in which the characters wear approximations of fin-de-siècle dress, and the arrival of visitors is heralded by sleighbells, yet a husband may speak of his wife as a “treacherous cow” and blasts of Louis Armstrong songs (the lyrics muffled by gratuitous echo) fill gaps between scenes. This inharmonious muddle is only patchily relieved by the heroic efforts of one or two members of its cast to pull the production together.

The territory is central 19th-century Scandi-noir, whose theme of “Love between the sexes is war!” is evident long before those words are spat from between clenched teeth. An army captain, Adolf, and his wife, Laura, are at loggerheads over the future of their teenage daughter, though it’s soon clear that the marriage had soured years before. The father (an entertainingly splenetic Alex Ferns, known to EastEnders fans as the Scots wife-beater Trevor) is a talented amateur scientist on the side, investigating distant planets by looking at bits of meteorite through a spectroscope. He’s keen to steer his intelligent daughter away from the irrational influence of a household dominated by women. We might blanch at this, but he has a point: the old nurse wants her to join the Salvation Army and his mother-in-law is encouraging her to commune with ghosts.

Laura, for her part, seems to oppose her husband on principle. Strindberg – by no means a straightforward misogynist as some have claimed – is interested in the effects of a patriarchal system on both parties in a marriage, and although the argument in this play may have been skewed by the playwright’s own miserable experience, it nonetheless makes some trenchant points. Keep a wife in a state of submission, the piece warns, and her resentment will eventually erupt like a poisonous boil.

The suddenness of Laura’s campaign of spite against her husband is, admittedly, a weakness in the play. But in this production both casting and direction compound it. Emily Dobbs (pictured above with Ferns) may believe she’s playing Laura as a coiled spring, but her lack of animation feels like inertia, deadening every encounter with Ferns’s Adolf in the early scenes. Meanwhile he, though a potent sexual force, is too much of a bruiser to convince as a frustrated academic. Eloquent when speaking of the difficulty of sustaining physical love – men love to be mothered, women like to mother, but they must remember to be lovers too – the pair reminisce about the passion they once shared, but it’s hard to imagine.

Laura’s revenge is nasty in the extreme. Not content with intercepting the books Adolf needs for his research, she spreads false rumours about his mental health and then drives her husband genuinely insane by sowing doubts – Iago-like, with a casual comment – about whether he really is the father of their daughter. This hate campaign demands a much sharper, and bigger, performance than it’s getting here.

Other facets of womanhood are more compellingly presented. Millie Thew gives a tenderly truthful account of Bertha, the daughter, her loyalties torn between her warring parents. Veteran June Watson (pictured above) is superb as the cuddly old nanny who, shockingly, betrays her beloved Adolf’s trust every bit as much as his wife does. Robert Wilfort as the nonplussed Pastor and Barnaby Sax as the beleaguered family doctor fight hard to make sense of the moral anachronisms of the production, but don’t. In short, this flawed but fascinating play is made much more flawed by the playing of it.

This hate campaign demands a much sharper, and bigger, performance than it’s getting

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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