Autumn and Winter
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Lars Norén has been compared to Strindberg (which he totally rejects) and to Bergman. Ibsen is referenced in the play, but one could be tempted to label Norén Sweden's Alan Ayckbourn, for he is as prolific if not as funny. He himself admits to being influenced by Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee. Little known in the UK, his plays are frequently performed at home and in Europe.
The Orange Tree rectifies that with Derek Goldby's excellent production of Autumn and Winter, part of Norén's trilogy of 'bourgeois quartets' (Tre borgerliga kvartetter). The play premiered in Copenhagen in 1988, and there was a production of it at Chelsea's The Man in the Moon in 1997.
The Orange Tree's tiny space serves Norén's preference for small claustrophobic spaces well: " I want small rooms. I want audiences to share the same space as the actors." This we do over an unbroken one and three quarter hours, whilst a well-to-do family of four peel back the layers of civility at their monthly dinner to reveal some painful 'truths'.
Drawing on his own experiences, he says, Norén has created a conflicted family of four, who illustrate Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse to perfection. But it's a rare family that doesn't. Dysfunctional family isn't that tautological, I've read many a time.
What we're watching is not new. Writers constantly mine this fertile terrain. Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", is disproved by Norén's play. This unhappy family seems very like so many others.
In a fine home, furnished in bourgeois style (splendidly realised by Sam Dowson), a dinner is ending, and whilst the mother, Margareta, clears up, father Henrik is asked to serve port to his two well-educated grown-up daughters (38 and 43 years old) in the other room. This he is glad to do, for, as we find out in due course, he often seeks escape in drink.
A quiet man, a doctor, Henrik (Osmund Bullock in a first-rate understated performance) passively bears his younger daughter's, Ann's, suggestions that he may have been too physically loving towards her. False memory? The dangers of therapy are briefly skated over. Her mother is less tolerant.
Thin-skinned fallen disturbed daughter Ann, a chain smoker, is the catalyst of the evening - huge demands are made on Lisa Stevenson's acting skills to sustain the bipolar vicissitudes of her performance. In dungarees, boots, torn cardigan, she goads her family into responses they thought they had concealed under their middle-class veneer. Norén has her giving Margareta Alice Miller's book on child abuse.
A beautifully self-contained elegant Diane Fletcher refuses at first to play her daughter's game, but eventually she is pushed to admit that she is not the perfect role model, that yes she did once have an affair. Henrik was often away, and she met someone at the library where she worked. Yes, she is flawed like the rest of them. But, she is still here; they are still together. The family unit is preserved - at a cost.
One revelation leads to another. Elder daughter Ewa, like mother like daughter, in a polished performance from Kristin Hutchinson, has also concealed her marital problems. An ice maiden, immaculately turned out in white suit, hair in a French chignon, the proficient diplomatic secretary, a model child, she is rich but barren.
How did they produce two such different daughters? Ann the loose cannon, who left home at fourteen, now a penniless single mum who has been known to beg on the street, a waitress in a gay bar, a struggling writer writing a play about the family... Does she take after her father's mother, who ended up in a mental asylum?
Sibling rivalry, frustration, jealousy, neediness, self-identity issues - do all families suppress and control? - is it always a battle to be oneself? Must there always be a struggle for dominance? Margareta made Henrik choose between his mother and herself, and now she wants him to choose her again over Ann.
And Ann must prove her point. That they have secrets from each other. And then what? The girls go home, the father turns out the lights. The pressure cooker steam has been let off. The trauma is over till the next dinner in a month's time. "Bye bye, dad, and cheer up. Thank you for a lovely evening." The mask is back in place.
The festering scab of family life will be picked at again, and bloodletting recriminations will fly. No wonder they resort to drink, pills, drugs and cigarettes. How do we cope? Unconditional family love is what sustains them. What a remarkable social and biological construct the family is. Director Derek Goldby puts his finger on it when he says, 'Family is the bedrock of society, but it can also mark you for a lifetime.'
Not Festen, not quite as lacerating as O'Neill or Albee, Autumn and Winter is redeemed by a fine cast and superb tight direction. This is a Stanislavskian production - the actors enter the space talking, two conversations going on at the same time. It's as if we've just entered mid-conversation. The end is silence.
Till 28th May 2011
Reviewer: Vera Liber