The second production in the Donmar Warehouse’s season of work by young directors at Trafalgar Studios sees Titas Halder tackling August Strindberg’s stifling study of extreme marital dysfunction.
Set on an isolated Swedish island, the play - written in 1900 - depicts the volatile waltz between Edgar and Alice, an embittered military captain and his wife of 25 years. As they approach their silver wedding anniversary, the couple spar with one another. It’s a war that’s clearly been raging for years; they’ve come to know each other’s raw patches and weak spots, and they know just where to probe and how hard to push to cause the most hurt and upset. They’ve driven away their maid, alienated most of their neighbours, and even their children wisely keep their distance. When an old acquaintance, Kurt, arrives at their home, he initially tries to heal the rift between then, but inevitably he is drawn into their poisoned circle as they each use him as a weapon with which to taunt the other.
Halder’s production, which uses a new English version of the text by Conor McPherson, is far funnier than the set-up might suggest. This is comedy of the bleakest, bitterest kind, with Alice and Edgar attacking each other with all the queasy heat of a prototypical George and Martha. It’s a game they’re playing, it clearly sustains them and in some ways they relish it, revelling in its rhythms, pain and pleasure darkly intertwined. They both bemoan their lot in life, railing against the hell they have created for themselves, but there’s a sense they’d be lost if they were ever parted. Yet though Edgar’s health is fading and the prospect of release is starting to become real, they continue to dance the same dance.
The way in which Halder plays up the comedy of the situation sometimes undermines its potential for intensity. The play’s sharper, nastier edges feel as if they have been blunted and the humour, while often well-deployed, also creates a degree of remove. The initial momentum doesn’t quite hold and the production loses steam somewhat towards the end, but the performances remain compelling throughout. Kevin R McNally’s Edgar is almost too comic a creation at times, overly buffoonish in manner, and though his delivery and timing is a delight, there’s a lack of true cruelty or underlying violence. Indira Varma’s Alice, on the other hand, is a deliciously malicious creature, barely batting an eye as Edgar suffers one of his spells, and playing with Daniel Lapaine’s intriguing, enigmatic Kurt the way a cat might with a small broken bird. At the same time both McNally and Varma manage to suggest the deep, hopeless need that underscores this couple’s relationship, their utter dependence on one another, a love twisted out of shape. Richard Kent’s set, all muted greys and blues, with grubby windows and a general air of decay, helps create a sense of emotional claustrophobia.