Strindberg freaks are in luck. A superb exhibition at Tate Modern of his haunting paintings coincides with the revival in London of two of his key works for the stage. A few weeks after the premiere of Katie Mitchell's National Theatre production of A Dream Play, we now have a wonderfully well-judged staging of the late drama Easter, directed by Dominic Dromgoole for Oxford Stage Company.
Pointedly set during the three-day death-and-resurrection lead-up to the eponymous festival, the piece focuses on the Heyst family, who have been bankrupted by an embezzling father, and on how they are eventually liberated from guilt, fear and social ostracism by the watchful mercy of the father's principal creditor and by the compassionate wisdom of Eleonora, the clan's innocent daughter. In a manner that seems at once gently unforced and absolutely emphatic, this young woman and Elis, her fraught, over-proud brother, are shown to be undergoing a Christ-like redemptive suffering for the sins of the father.
It's a play that straddles diverse, not to say divergent, modes - everything from the naturalistic to the numinous. Dromgoole's production does vivid justice to all of these tones. The play, under his direction, is touched with a kind of madness as well as blessed with a vision that transcends both the bric-à-brac of quotidian domesticity and fairy-tale fantasy.
It's a production that remembers to give a realistically snow-whitened damp look to the overshoes of the dreaded creditor Lindkvist (played here by Edward Peel with a terrific, intimidating presence that dissolves into gentle-giant clemency). At the same time, Michael Taylor's magical set situates the ordinary (a lovely, detailed interior) in a suggestively heightened, bare-twigged darkness broken up by brooding lampposts. The characters make exits into shadowy, but clearly visible "wings", where a lone violinist plays.
This same sense of operating on several levels simultaneously is imparted by the excellent, artfully chosen cast. You feel that at any moment they could switch to a deadpan spoof of the intensity that they inhabit so powerfully. And this double-jointedness does not compromise the production; it strengthens it.
Bo Poraj beautifully conveys the defensive touchiness of Elis. Broad-browed and attractively stocky, Frances Thorburn is a down-to-earth Eleonora. And Nicholas Shaw, making a delightful stage debut as Elis's academically challenged young pupil, is hilarious and touching as he darts shy, smitten looks of hungry adoration at Eleonora.
The play has been translated by dramatist Gregory Moton. Not knowing Swedish, I can't vouch for its line-by-line accuracy, but it seems to chime with Strindberg's perception that "the human heart is bottomless and in it lies gold and filth". Strongly recommended.
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