A Dream Play
August Strindberg adapted by Rachel Connor
Deja Vu Ensemble
The Nexus Art Cafe, Manchester
Swedish Playwright August Strindberg wrote the play in 1902 after a severe nervous breakdown although he had been struggling with his mental health for most of the preceding decade.
The fractured landscape of madness is reflected in the style and themes of the play. In his conception, he mandated that anything could happen, everything is possible and plausible and time and space do not exist.
In Strindberg’s original, a female god descends from the heavens to bear witness to the sufferings of humanity. In this gritty version it’s Aggie who arrives suddenly into the crowd gathering outside the Nexus Art Café in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. She manifests immediately after we have been asked about our recent dreams. She’s not sure from where she’s come but it seems the answers to her questions must lie inside and so she runs into the café and we follow her.
Comparisons with Alice in Wonderland are unavoidable. It feels like a kind of version for adults with various archetypes in place of creatures: School teacher, Officer, Advocate, Judge and so on. The connections between scenes come from the logic of dreams and these are not always clear as we process promenade style. This doesn’t particularly matter as most of them work in their own right.
The first scene as we assemble in the foyer of the café has The Officer in a bath filled with books. He curses the day he was born and bemoans his lot while Aggie tries to comfort him. Then we move inside the main café area and gradually outside to the conservatory where the Officer appears to want to woo a woman called Victoria for whom he’s waited for 7 years but whom we never actually meet.
There is a song from the guitar and trumpet duo Maddie and Klass who lovingly perform all the music in the show. And just before we go back inside again, we have the first mention of what may lie behind the closed garden door. I think this is meant to be a symbol of all that we push deep into our subconscious and therefore out of sight but the scene, like one or two others, felt like it went on just a bit too long. Then we are back indoors once more.
The next sequence seems to connect Aggie with an advocate with whom she appears to be having a close relationship or at least so it would seem in his mind and from his behaviour. He appears to be suffocating her in some metaphorical way and we are in a very small and claustrophobic room off the café area so this is quite clever. The audience is trapped like Aggie feels trapped.
There is a rather odd character who keeps putting enigmatic Post It notes on the wall and at one point Aggie in her frustration throws a cabbage at the Advocate. This seems to be about close relationships and marriage and the difficulties therein. A lot of it doesn’t make much literal sense but it’s kept going by the performances.
The next scene is by far the best in the whole show. We are back in the main café area once again and it’s a cabaret from the Quarantine Master who makes it clear we are all in Quarantine for some reason. She is dressed like a fading, somewhat distressed opera diva with a fan and offers a frenzied banshee-like rendering of "The Windmills of Your Mind".
This works surprisingly well given the odd dream-like nature of those lyrics and she engages with the audience for some improvised banter along the way throwing peanuts to us which is all great if absurd fun.
It ends with the main three cast members doing the can can and the audience waving our yellow pieces of fabric which we were given in lieu of tickets. This is followed by a scene where the Officer returns to school and we are also in the class and treated as such by the terrifying school ma'am with again some great improv with audience members. The lesson appears to be about truth and madness.
After this, a new character is introduced who is visually-impaired with cockle shells for eyes. It feels quite a late stage to be doing this as immediately after the Advocate signals that Aggie has to start to retrace her steps through what she’s already experienced as everything is repetition. This seems to hint at moving towards a conclusion.
From this point, it begins to drag somewhat and the final scenes in the conservatory / garden where we discover what may or may not be behind the locked door and then back to the book bath go on too long. The 100-minute run time without interval is about 15 minutes over time.
The company uses the odd location very well and manages to get us in and out of areas quite easily. The performances from the 10-strong ensemble, many of whom double up, are all very good.
Standouts however have to be Kathryn Hanke as the Quarantine Master and also almost unrecognisably the Bill Poster. She has the most confidence in her improvisation with the audience and also a brilliant swagger in the cabaret scene.
As Aggie, Rose Van Leyenhorst has a lovely innocent quality which helps us to continue to care about what happens to her. As The Stage Door Keeper, Ruth Urquhart has a fantastic authority and easy command of the audience which is very seductive.
It’s not essential to seek too close a correlation between this version and the Strindberg original. The production works very well on its own terms and is richly textured around the location despite the caveat about run time.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards