Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review The Blinding Light

The Blinding Light
by Howard Brenton

Down But Not Out In Paris

Fin de siècle Paris and a famous writer is holed up in a seedy hotel doing decidedly weird stuff in the bathroom.

Howard Brenton's new play tangles itself with a few months in the life of Swedish writer, poet and painter August Strindberg, the "other" Scandinavian playwright.

For those not up on world playwriting, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen is probably slightly higher on the league table of Scandinavian playwrights in terms of fame, something which comes up in Brenton's sometimes witty but rather static and opaque take on this episode in Strindberg's life.

It should be enough for anyone coming new to Strindberg and this play to know only this. Certainly there's a pretty strong cast with Jasper Britton as the fiery, choleric Strindberg. He has shut himself away to pursue his weird science - the ancient dream of alchemy to transform base metals to gold.

So much for his theories - the play starts with a face off between the dishevelled and disturbed Strindberg, clad in his underwear and an artisan's apron, his hands stained with the chemicals needed for his experiments and forthright, dark-haired hotel cleaner, Lola (Laura Morgan) trying to do her job.

After that comes a succession of his former wives in what is,possibly a hallucinatory Faustian pageant. First of all, bossy aristocrat Siri von Essen (imperious Susannah Harker), an actress and mother of his two children. Then Frida Uhl (Gala Gordon who could have stepped out of a Gustav Klimt portrait), an Austrian writer, barely out of her teens when she first met and married Strindberg bearing him another daughter.

It's a neat irony that the elder of his wives' real first name reflects an authoritarian piece of Apple software (isn't all "helpful" computer software by its nature authoritarian?). Is Brenton playing on this? Who knows but he and maybe his director Tom Littler in a detailed and measured production?.

Yet in the midst of Strindberg's rantings and paranoia (he liberally takes swigs of what may be absinthe), the occasional futuristic reference crops up. Strindberg, we hear from one wife, "made his excuses and left" like some old-style tabloid hack.

The name of the celebrated movie from Ingmar Bergman (another Scandinavian!) Wild Strawberries also comes into his conversation. Such references and his assailing by inner and outer voices almost turn The Blinding Light into a Stephen King-style science fiction time travelling story.

Indeed, despite a polished staging, Max Pappenheim's soundscape made TLT and her own definitely non-imaginary sidekick (a talking, theatre reviewing car, what are you accusing TLT of? 😉) wonder whether this was originally intended for radio and maybe a prospect for a feature film.

This might explain, despite a grippingly intense, feverishly wild Britton and nicely stylized performances from Morgan, Harker and Gale, who cross over "real" life, painting and literature in one fell swoop, why The Blinding Light partly didn't quite work for TLT & Co.

The other part was like the recent Mrs Orwell: the name dropping and theorizing  might have the cogniscenti chuckling knowingly. However,  unless you know your Wedekind from your Swedenborg, audience members might drift off, drawn in again by only the occasional glimpse of a story.

There is a threat from Siri which finally materializes, only to dissolve through the help of the canny chambermaid. But in the end it feels as if The Blinding Light might work better as an opera with all its internal conflict and duologues with women in Strindberg's life.

Just in case, this sounds altogether too gloomy, it's worth adding there is a sense of irony and some comical juxtapositions transformed into a kind of writer's (and literary agent's) crafty happy ending when Strindberg, transformed, breaks through his own brick wall.

It's 90 minutes with good performances, if sometimes the writing itself seems rather studied and self conscious. There's an ingenious design by Cherry Truluck for Lucky Bert with gravy-brown late 19th century furniture in front of abstract painted screens, spot-on costumes from Emily Stuart and impressive lighting from William Reynolds,

The Blinding Light starts off well and ends well,  but the script  sinks into rather undramatic verbosity part of the way through, despite some redeeming humour and the best efforts of the director and cast. All in all, the voices assailing the collective mind of TLT and her jalopy whisper amber light.       

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