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The Blinding Light review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘a revealing portrait’

Gala Gordon and Jasper Britton in The Blinding Light at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Gala Gordon and Jasper Britton in The Blinding Light at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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New artistic director Tom Littler opens the first season of Jermyn Street Theatre as a fully producing venue with the world premiere of The Blinding Light, Howard Brenton’s play about a critical period in August Strindberg’s life.

In 1896 the Swedish playwright abandoned the theatre during what he later described as his “Inferno crisis” to pursue his obsession with alchemy in Paris. We see him in a seedy hotel room visited by his two former wives, as he wrestles with internal demons that plagued his life but also acted as a catalyst for his art.

This may have been a nervous breakdown due to stress caused by a court case for blasphemy and a painful divorce, but Brenton suggests that it was also a process of personal renewal that led Strindberg from scientific investigation to experiment with an expressionist form of drama very different from his earlier naturalist plays. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the nature of artistic creation, with many references to Strindberg’s work, but though the play boasts Brenton’s characteristic intelligence and wit in dealing with substantial themes it never quite transmutes the rich potential of its source material into pure living drama.

Cherry Truluck’s semi-abstract Strindbergian-designed partitions are luridly lit by William Reynolds during moments of delusional fantasy or memory, while Max Pappenheim’s discordant electronic score and whispering voices add to the sense of paranoia.

Jasper Britton impresses as the wild-eyed, unkempt Strindberg splattered with chemical stains whose genius is alloyed with psychosis. Strindberg’s love/hate relationship with women is shown in his passionate entanglements with actress first wife Siri (a formidable Susannah Harker) and bohemian young second wife Frida (a seductive Gala Gordon), as well as his bargaining with Laura Morgan’s flirtatious chambermaid, all of whose appearances are probably forged in Strindberg’s overheated imagination.

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Howard Brenton’s revealing portrait of Strindberg in transformation