I confess to being more than a little suspicious when a three act play written in 1887 is served up as a ‘new version’ and gets through all three acts in ‘about 100 minutes’, without an interval. I have sat through a fair number of new plays, or new versions of plays, in which I gained the distinct impression that an interval was lacking almost purely because people wouldn’t bother returning if one existed. I am pleased to report this is not the case in Laurie Slade’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s ‘The Father’. Even if the four-letter words that Strindberg never put in were wholly unnecessary and made no contribution to the impact of the storyline or the dialogue.
The themes explored are similar to that of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’. The original script apparently directly references it (although The Captain is dismissive of it). That, and other seemingly frivolous lines, have been cut from this version: this is certainly an adaptation set at a pace and ruthlessness suitable for today’s theatre audiences, with little need to take account of it being a play written in a previous generation.
The Captain (Alex Ferns) is absolutely captivating in the lead role, moving from tender father figure to furious military superior, holding the audience’s full attention from beginning to end. At times of great fervour he was genuinely slightly frightening. Not, mind you, in the sense that I felt threatened, but rather there was a sense of concern for his wife Laura (Emily Dobbs) and his daughter Bertha (Millie Thew), as The Captain increasingly got his military and civilian roles mixed up. More than once he barks orders at the Nurse (June Watson) as though she were an army private.
What is central to The Captain and Laura is teenage girl Bertha’s future. The Captain, a staunch atheist, wants her to live in the city, away from the Baptist doctrine of the Nurse and the occult spiritualism of Bertha’s grandmother, who we are not directly introduced to. Laura wants her daughter to remain at home, and acts very deviously to get her way, partly because she has the brains to do so, and partly because it is the only way for a woman to make progress in a society so much in favour of the male species.
After the Captain questions a soldier, Nojd (Thomas Coombes), over the paternity of the child soon to be born to one of his maidservants, Laura turns the tables on the Captain, sowing seeds of doubt in his mind as to the paternity of his own daughter – their own daughter. Because, theoretically, it could have been someone else. This bombshell, hypothetical as it was, and hypothetical as it remained (Laura finds herself screaming ‘You’re her father!’ in a later confrontation), drives The Captain quite literally mad. He ends up certified insane.
I suppose a truly ‘new version’ would be an episode of the American television series ‘Divorce Court’, or, dare I say it, the British television series ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’, the latter of which demonstrates that a paternity test does not in itself resolve marital disputes. This is exactly the point: a marriage lacking mutual trust is on very shaky foundations indeed.
The set is simple enough. There is a Christmas tree at the rear, moderately decorated. A lockable desk – the sort of desk marvelled upon by the art valuers on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ – is upstage left, with a wooden chair in front of it. A table and two chairs are downstage right. On closer inspection, the black table looks like something out of Ikea – this is not as out of place as one might think, given that the show is set in Sweden. The wall covering the rear of the stage is completely black: symbolic, perhaps, of how dark the show is, even if it is peppered with the dry wit of The Captain.
None of the characters come out completely unscathed – unlike ‘A Doll’s House’ we are not left with much sympathy for the wife, even if she got what she wanted. And yes, it is the child who arguably suffers the most, on account of her not having done anything wrong. A thoroughly engaging piece, during which the music played at scene changes enhances the growing sense of foreboding before the show’s climax.
Of course, these are the sort of themes that have been explored in many a theatrical production. Nonetheless it is to the credit of the cast, and their director Abbey Wright, that it took what the BBC calls a ‘theatre industry expert’, Terri Paddock, to tell me her observation that Alex Ferns was taking bows at the curtain call still wearing a straitjacket that I then remembered I wasn’t in nineteenth century Sweden after all but in a 98 seater studio theatre in the heart of twenty-first century London. It is rare for me to be so thoroughly absorbed in a show in this way, and for a show to give plenty of food for thought even if, as I say, the topics the show addresses have been thought through and debated many times before. 100 minutes? It felt like 10, and my only disappointment is that it was over all too soon.
Review By Chris Omaweng
An uneasy stand off exists between the Captain and his wife, Laura. But, a disagreement over the future of their daughter,Bertha, triggers an all out-war. Laura will stop at nothing to gain control of her daughter’s future. When she suggests to the Captain that he may not actually be the girl’s father, she sets a chain of events in motion that cannot be stopped. It is a battle of the minds, but the real question is – is it a battle either party can win?
Trafalgar Studio Two
Show Opened: 11th March 2015
Booking Until: 11th April 2015
Evenings: Monday to Saturdays 7.45pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 3.00pm
Wednesday 18th March 2015