We think we know where we are with idealists in plays. There's the sort, like Susan in David Hare's Plenty, whose maladjustment is meant to expose the rottenness of a society that fails to live up to their expectations. Then there's the type, like Moliere's Alceste, whose railings at imperfection are so extreme as to turn them into the play's principal satiric butt. It's a fate that would suit the third kind, those monologuing heroes of Thomas Bernhard, with their relentless bile against everything under the sun. But it's the hallmark of this type that the plays decline to evince any contrasting sense of proportion.
None of the above categories will quite provide a home, though, for the elderly pilgrim protagonist of The Great Highway, Strindberg's last play, now given a rare and intriguing revival by David Farr at the Gate. He is first seen on a misty mountain pass, exulting in the elevated purity of nature and in his distance from corrupt mankind.
Then up through a trap-door hops a hermit who proceeds to saw down his plinth with a few well-put queries. If loving is giving, how can the pilgrim claim that it is an excess of love for people rather than contempt that has prompted his self-exile? The pilgrim cuts the conversation short, and both his excuse (the parkiness of the weather) and his next port of call (a honkytonk bar further down the valley) suggest that the progress of this 'Wayfaring Drama with Seven Stations' is unlikely to be onward and upward.
Not that the play takes the Moliere line on its hero's refusal to compromise. Rather, it presents him and his relationship to the world with that contradictory Strindbergian mixture of egomaniacal self-involvement and objective detachment. It's a weird combination of characteristics, a bit like describing someone as at once pathologically myopic and a crack shot.
But then the range of styles in the play is bewilderingly diverse, from a Lewis Carroll-like episode in Asstown, where the schoolmaster has to act insane in order to avoid being locked up, to extraordinary intimations of Expressionism. Farr's production negotiates these shifts with great flair, and if the story remains opaque, this is the play's fault. Preoccupied with the past, with an unconvicted murderer, with a wife and daughter usurped by a rival, the protagonist is, weakeningly, almost our sole source of evidence for his crucial claims to scapegoathood.
Silvester Morand is excellent in the lead role, suggesting a terrifying loneliness in the final scene as he pleads his special qualifications for God's blessing. Represented by two walls of wooden doors, the forest closes in behind him, the Great Highway now a cul-de-sac.
To 8 Jan, The Gate, 11 Pembridge Rd, W11 (071-229 0706)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies