God knows August Strindberg could be a crashing bore. By 1901, when the Swedish playwright wrote this two-part-play, his best stuff – ‘The Father’, ‘Miss Julie’ – was behind him. But then he turned to expressionism – and let his growling misanthropy off the leash.
Admittedly, there is dark humour in this marathon of marital sarcasm set on a remote Swedish island established as a military quarantine colony. But not even a writer as vigorous as Howard Brenton can enliven the dispiriting negativity in this new version.
An impressive cast sees Michael Pennington as the truculent Strindberg character Edgar, an army captain entangled in web of deceit. Linda Marlowe appears as his snarling wife Alice, who mistakenly gave up a career on the stage to share this hell of isolation.
The result is a relationship capable of poisoning plants – something the pair are immensely proud of. But in with the vinegary mirth a good bit of theological philosophy is whipped up and forced upon a hapless doctor friend as well as their grown-up children.
There is the odd twinkle of levity in Tom Littler’s production and James Petkins’s handsome design presents first a grim old watch tower and then projects images of Strindberg’s angst ridden paintings of lowering seascapes.
The two younger actors also lend some vitality to the enervating charade after the interval. Eleanor Wyld is a nicely manipulative as Edgar and Alice’s siren daughter and Edward Franklin quivers as her gauche victim, tortured by his own testosterone.
Pennington and Marlowe, meanwhile shelter from the nihilism, he with sly melodramatic eyeballs and she with volatile histrionics – both tearing flesh off a meek Christopher Ravenscroft as their genial old friend.
For the Strindberg hardcore only.
By Patrick Marmion