theatre: Strindberg redeemed

Easter The Pit, London
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The Independent Culture
On the page, it looks like the recipe for a major embarrassment; on the stage, in Katie Mitchell's richly persuasive Pit production for the RSC, Strindberg's Easter comes across as a triumph, albeit of a decidedly peculiar kind.

The problems arise from the way the play operates in several modes simultaneously. On one level, it presents us with a gritty world of debts and bailiffs. With the head of the household in prison for embezzlement, the touchy, impoverished Heyst family lives in heightened fear of its creditors. At the same time, though, the play plunges you into a realm of biblical parable and fairy-tale where the most dreaded of the bogeyman creditors turns out to be a well-meaning giant who dismantles the defensive pride of the Heyst son through a ritual test.

Emphasising the strand of religious allegory, the daughter of the household, Eleanora, is a hyper-sensitive mystical figure who has just absconded from a mental institution and who, guiltless herself, takes on the suffering and guilt of others in a consciously Christ-like way. Progressing from Maundy Thursday to Easter eve, with interludes of church music, the play has to find a compromise between the inevitability of ritual and the contingency of drama.

The joy of this production is that it manages, with miraculously little strain, to inhabit all these worlds at once. Bare, spartan, its few sticks of furniture stacked as though in paranoid readiness for the repossessor, Rosa Maggiora's striking set paysits respects to realism, while creating expressionistically distended distances between people. Its blankness is a versatile screen for the effects of light which economically communicate shifts of season and of mood. The atmosphere can accommodate rituals both elevated and mundane. Oil paintings of the Passion and Resurrection may flash up in projection between scenes but Mitchell does not forget that in so straitened a household even feeding the meter would also be a somewhat charged ceremony.

A girl who worries about the feelings of flowers and who identifies with the stresses of being a telegraph wire sounds like the kind of fey pain-in-the-backside JM Barrie might have dreamt up. But Lucy Whybrow's charismatic, amazingly skilful performanceputs any such prejudice to rout. She appears at once older and younger than her years, by turns impish, governess-grave, her mind at moments clearly picking up frequencies unheard by the others. She convinces you that this is how a girl might turn out if she'd been wrongly dumped in an asylum with only the Bible for company.

The rest of the cast is excellent, too. Adrian Rawlins is marvellously fraught and defensive as the over-proud son and Philip Locke brings a dark playfulness and deep experience of sorrow to the role of his tester. In his beautifully played embarrassmentat the religious uplift of the conclusion, Daniel Betts's young Benjamin nicely absorbs and annuls any residual audience awkwardness at this strange, powerful work.

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