August Strindberg in a new translation by Gregory Motton
Oxford Stage Company
Thanks to the curators of Tate Modern, we now know that August Strindberg was an artist as well as a playwright and that almost the only colour on his palette was black.
On the stage too, his most famous works are very dark and in his life, depression was far more common than cheer.
Strindberg was a very prolific writer and therefore it is not too difficult to turn up unknown plays of his. Easter was written in 1900, the same year as The Dance of Death.
Initially, the family at its centre, the Heysts seem to be suffering in true Strindbergian style. Father is portrayed as something of a saint by his wife, although we do not see him since he is incarcerated having embezzled trust funds from fatherless children. Daughter Eleonora is also missing, suffering a different kind of imprisonment, having been committed to an asylum.
The focus of the play is on Bo Poraj's Elis, a hyperactive postgraduate student-cum-teacher. On Good Friday, his life reaches a nadir as he is snubbed by the student who has stolen part of his thesis, his best pupil fails a Latin exam and then his fiancée, the still, calm Kristina (Catherine Tozer) apparently deserts him.
In addition, Eleonora, having escaped from her institution, steals a single daffodil and even having left payment in the shop seems destined to spend the rest of her life in a straitjacket. With her Alice-in-Wonderland character, wide-eyed innocence and irrepressible joy, she is an excellent creation and it is easy to see why the failed pupil Benjamin, played by Nicholas Shaw, should be entranced.
Worse is in store for Elis as, while his mother lives in a dream world denying anything bad in connection with her family, a wolf is at the door in the guise of his father's biggest creditor, Lindqvist.
After the interval, the action moves on to Easter Sunday and Strindberg gives up the habits of a lifetime by creating a spectacularly happy and unlikely ending.
Edward Peel, playing Lindqvist like a rather melodramatic Dickensian villain, suddenly changes his tone practically in mid-sentence and becomes a fairy godfather whose gratitude stems from a 40-year-old event by which his whole life had been put right by Mr Heyst.
The whole takes place within Michael Taylor's Chekhovian set, a busy living room that has seen better times, with a forest of a garden behind.
Easter almost collapses under the weight of its symbolism and director Dominic Dromgoole eschews naturalism in his actors in favour of playing to type. While it is always interesting to see an unknown play from a famous and much-loved writer and this one includes a fascinating character in Frances Thorburn's Eleonora, sometimes the fact that a minor piece of the canon had previously disappeared may have good reason.
Playing until 23rd April
Reviewer: Philip Fisher