Strindberg's dreamy box of delights

THEATRE A Dream Play Tramway, Glasgow
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
August Strindberg's 1901 masterpiece A Dream Play is notoriously difficult to stage (the first performance was not until 1907). Its combination of a large cast of characters who "split, double, re-double, evaporate, condense, scatter and converge" (Strindberg's introduction), a fantastical, somnambulatory plot, and extravagant stage directions which require, among other things, a castle roof to turn into a chrysanthemum, has been an irresistible challenge to some of the 20th century's greatest directors, including Ingmar Bergman, who has had five cracks at opening up its enigmatic inner workings.

Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre (artistic director: Ingmar Bergman) last year tempted the innovative Canadian director Robert Lepage to pick up Strindberg's gauntlet. Glasgow's Tramway, continuing a relationship with Lepage started in 1990, offers the first and (thus far) only chance to see Lepage's Dream Play outside Sweden.

Lepage turns the dream world of the play into a magical box of delights. His 18-strong cast perform on a revolving 3m-square cube, suspended over water. This is not only a stunning visual metaphor for the spinning world of illusions; it also allows the multiple scene changes to occur with a dizzy, seamless fluidity. As the cube turns, doors become windows, windows become hatches, and characters emerge through the floor and leave by the ceiling. Ulf Englund's lighting and Bengt Wanselius's projections miraculously transform the cube's blank walls into theatre stage door, cloudy sky or Fingal's Cave, their technical precision supplementing Lepage's bold design. By focusing the action into this versatile but small space, Lepage directly engages his audience's imagination, asking us to picture landscapes and events that Strindberg's original text suggests should be directly represented on stage.

As in dreams or good farce, Lepage's cast perform with utter sincerity, no matter how absurd their plight. We never question why the Bill Poster should be so attached to his fishing net, nor how the love-lorn Officer can bear to keep returning for his lover for 50 years.

Like Bergman before him, Lepage takes a blue pencil to Strindberg's verbose and often repetitious dialogue, which both keeps the action flowing and establishes a hypnotic, poetic rhythm. For A Dream Play is much more a dramatic poem than a dream. The recurring characters - the Officer, the Lawyer, the Blind Man, the Stage Door Keeper - seem the dramatic counterparts to the colourful, tormented figures of some of Bob Dylan's best work, for example. In the play, when the Poet questions Indra's daughter about poetry, she replies that it is "not reality, but greater than reality. No dream, but waking dreams".

Lepage makes delicate, even-handed use of the religious and poetic imagery in A Dream Play, playing Christian motifs - fishing nets, crowns of thorns - against Buddhist-like closed doors of perception, so that Strindberg's work becomes a sustained, compassionate contemplation of human existence.

As Indra's daughter, Franchesca Quartey leads an outstanding Swedish cast completely at home in their vertiginous environment. From its opening thunderclap to its final, fiery bloom, Lepage's A Dream Play shows one of the world's leading theatre-makers at the peak of his powers.

n 'A Dream Play' is at the Tramway, Glasgow to 29 May. Box-office: 0141 227 5511

Comments