Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
With their unflinching depictions of destructive power struggles between men and women, August Strindberg’s plays are unlikely to be chosen by couples on a date. But even by Strindberg’s standards his 1887 drama The Father — inspired by the acrimonious break-up of his first marriage — is an extreme account of the archetypal male-female dichotomy, with no room for compromise. It seems that for Strindberg it was a case of ‘can’t live with women, can’t live without them’ as he went on to remarry twice. And though this play is to some extent weighted in favour of the male protagonist, it cannot be simply dismissed as a melodramatic, misogynistic rant because of its penetrating insights into gender roles.
In The Father, the battle between the freethinking, scientific Captain and his religious, arts-loving wife Laura is fought over the welfare or control of their 14-year-old daughter, though she seems to be merely a pawn in their atavistic conflict. Having tried but failed to use her sexuality, the only weapon she has to defeat her intransigent husband is to drive him mad with doubt about his paternity and then get him sectioned.
It’s a compelling if uncomfortable scenario followed through to the bitter end in which there can only be one winner, but though the two combatants behave horribly Strindberg shows that to some extent they are both victims of the rigid social norms of late 19th-century patriarchal Sweden. Laura may be ruthlessly manipulative in her tactics, but as she points out to her husband she has been straitjacketed throughout her life. However, it’s interesting to contrast The Father with the contemporary A Doll’s House by Ibsen, a proto-feminist work that gives a much more sympathetic portrayal of women’s plight.
Laurie Slade’s stripped-back, colloquially modern version of the play goes straight for the jugular, even if it misses a little of its psychological subtlety. Abbey Wright’s intense, 100-minute, interval-less production allows no escape from the fight, whose claustrophobic intensity is perfect for the black box of Trafalgar Studio 2, though the updated jazzy in-between-scenes music seems misplaced.
Alex Ferns (best known for once playing a much-hated soap villain in EastEnders) gives a powerhouse performance as the Captain — a boiler about to explode, but he alternates his aggressive outbursts of mania with quieter, even tender, lucid moments. In contrast, Emily Dobbs’s Laura is coolly calculating, though not without feeling. Her brother Pastor is played by Robert Wilfort with detached sanctimoniousness, while Barnaby Sax’s well-meaning Doctor is unwittingly dragged into the fray and June Watson’s warm-hearted Nurse is driven to commit the final act of betrayal, in a play where everyone ultimately has to take sides.
The Father is on at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 11 April. Tickets are £17.50–£30. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.