Theatre: A case of too much Freud

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The Independent Culture
STANISLAWA PRZYBYSZEWSKA is not a name to conjure with, still less to spell with any confidence, in this country. But her massive, rambling 600-page dramatisation of the French revolution was the source both of the Andrzej Wajda movie Danton, and The Danton Affair by Pam Gems, produced by the RSC in 1985. While working on that piece, Gems became "fascinated by Przybyszewska's fascination. And by her." She is certainly an arresting phenomenon. A young Polish woman who holed herself up alone in an unheated school hut where, sustained only by her morphine addiction and hand-outs from a kindly aunt, she channelled her neurotic idealism into an obsessive study of Robespierre and Danton. At the tragically early age of 33, she died of hypothermia.

By far the best reason for seeing Janet Suzman's Sphinx production is the superlative central performance by Kathryn Pogson. She elevates some pretty stodgy material. All bony fervour and haunted, staring eyes, she sits at her desk scribbling frantically, and even if the characters she is writing about did not materialise around her, you would be convinced that here is a woman who lives more in a heightened dream of the past than in the comfortless present.

Hers is a movingly shaded characterisation. Brusquely dismissing charity from a well-heeled neighbour, Pogson lets you see how the high-minded Przybyszewska wavers, mesmerised by the warmth and scent of the proffered little luxuries. And there's an aching emotional neediness underlying her half-reproving, half-flirtatious relations with her demonic father, an avant-garde writer and alleged Satanist whose capacity for living "to the hilt" she emulates.

The play, though, is unsatisfactory on two counts. The immemorial battle between the severe revolutionary purity and belief in perfectibility of a Robespierre and the generous-spirited indulgence of a Danton has been much more potently staged by writers - from Buchner in Danton's Death to Trevor Griffiths in Who Shall Be Happy...?

And it doesn't help here that while Nigel Cooke brings just the right thin-lipped martinet quality to the "Sea-green incorruptible", Mark Lewis Jones reduces Danton to a blubbery, drunken boor. Secondly, if the play's intent is to celebrate Przybyszewska, it goes about it in a peculiar fashion. For its implication is that this feminist attitude to the two revolutionaries was almost wholly conditioned by Przybyszewska's own problems with her father - whose identity, in an example of the often clunky dialogue, she eventually discovers: "You don't mean Przybyszewsky the dramatist, the novelist, the friend of Edvard Munch, Strindberg - all those avant-garde artists, you mean?"

Accordingly, Robespierre, whom Przybyszewska was unusual in revering, represents the security her unstable background failed to give her, while her progressive antagonism to the rackety Danton mirrors her rejection of her wild, lawless father, who here makes a drunken attempt to rape and murder her.

It's not that such links didn't exist, but that The Snow Palace is in danger of suggesting that, for a woman in Przybyszewska's position, objectivity and disinterestedness cannot and should not be expected. It seems hard that, after leading such an arduously idealistic life, she should be remembered, not as an independent creative intellect, but as a Freudian case study.