Coming Down to Earth

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Review of 'A Dream Play' by August Strindberg, National Theatre, London

A Dream Play is an adaptation of a play originally written by August Strindberg in 1901. Strindberg was a prolific writer and revolutionary dramatist. He pulled and pushed at the social and theatrical conventions of his day and constantly experimented with new dramatic form and technique. His later, expressionistic plays drew on the developing theories of psychoanalysis. In his words, 'drama is enacted by symbolic creatures built out of human consciousness' and this drama should be built up 'like the theme in a musical composition'. His work was to become hugely influential on artists, playwrights and dramatists, film-makers and photographers throughout the 20th century. Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, the theatre of the absurd - all owe something to Strindberg.

Strindberg was also a deeply scarred man with a troubled personal history and it is this biographical history which Caryl Churchill and Katie Mitchell select as the central theme in their version of the play. The main character for them is Alfred, a 1950s stockbroker, who now in effect represents Strindberg himself.

Their play is a visual spectacle - a beautifully choreographed sequence of interrelated dream moments taken from Alfred's life. People, furniture and walls sometimes glide, sometimes judder and sway or stand on the stage. Time is often cleverly speeded up, slowed down, repeated and reversed. The occasional acknowledgement of the audience jolts you into an uneasy self-consciousness. There is little if no chronology, as bizarre references and cross-references suddenly appear then reappear in an altered context. This is, therefore, not an easy play to watch and you leave the theatre feeling slightly disorientated, detached and disjointed.

In Strindberg's original play, the key role is not Alfred but the goddess, Agnes, who visits Earth to bear witness to human pain and anxiety. Although Agnes, for Strindberg, acts as an unconvincing religious or moral overseer and arbiter of events, all his characters remain introspective and undetermined. This was a challenge to the dominant, naturalist conventions of his day, where characters in drama represented specific social types without contradiction, predetermined and easily recognisable.

Mitchell has also chosen to set the play in Britain in the 1950s and it's these mixed-up, formal devices - a particular and personal biography, set in another historical context and played through a dream - I found confusing.

Confusion was all part of the game with Strindberg. For him, there was never an easy one-to-one relationship between words and what the words were supposed to represent. With Mitchell, the confusion is simply confusing. Like Strindberg, her theatre is episodic, playful and detached. But because her play offers little challenge to a modern audience used to the spectacular and episodic in film, you can either take it or leave it. Drama should not necessarily be posited historically but the best drama asks questions of an audience and this version of the play mostly doesn't. Set in the 1950s, it has become clich├ęd.

Also, encouraging the audience to psychoanalyse Strindberg is limiting and invites character assassination. Now, there may be plenty of reasons to criticise Strindberg personally - and plenty have, for his sexism and irrationality - but to understand Strindberg, we need to see him as both a product of his time and as a producer of challenging dramatic art. The obvious talents of Churchill, Mitchell and her company would be served less by leaving us in awe but more by leaving us with questions.