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The Great Highway

August Strindberg, translated by Gregory Motton
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill

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The Great Highway could be seen as Strindberg's Pilgrim's Progress, with a little sprinkling of Alice in Wonderland for colour. It is, in the words of the blurb-writer on the playscript "Strindberg's last great play .... One of the expressionist masterpieces of modern drama".

This little-known and rarely played non-naturalistic play follows the travels and travails of an unnamed Hunter as he seeks a meaning that will make his life worthwhile.

Stephen Boxer produces a tremendous effort as a man who is at different times described as "The advocate of the just cause" and "The shepherd (who) sacrifices himself for his flock".

He starts as something of a mad, tired clown but eventually evolves through sadness and recollection into an iconic Jesus figure, the scapegoat for the sins of his society.

Director Wally Sutcliffe has been well-served by John Bausor's inventive design in the round. This consists of a series of fading photographs that both set the scene and become it, laid out randomly to create a hilly floor with mountain and valley scenes in the distance. The snapshot imagery is reinforced by the camera effects heralding the breaks between the seven stations of the traveller's journey.

The weary Hunter is near to his destination at the start and as he follows his destiny, meets a weird and wonderful collection of people. Foremost is his antithesis and travelling companion, Laurence Penry-Jones' Wanderer. He is omniscient but knows nothing and soon succumbs to the temptations of the flesh.

The villages provide such pleasures as the owners of windmills named after Adam and Eve, a pair challenging each other seemingly to decide which is the madder, a Japanese man desiring assistance in his attempt to commit hari kiri, a bombastic photographic family and the Hunter's long lost daughter.

The pick of the supporting actors is Adam Meggido, who plays a variety of parts with a sinister wit that both chills and amuses the audience, never more so than as a mayoral Blacksmith.

The Great Highway is far closer to A Dream Play than to Miss Julie. It offers a surreal experience that is well blessed by Gregory Motton's poetic translation, which is accessible and at times shows the influence of Dylan Thomas.

This revival is to be welcomed as a rare opportunity to see an unusual piece graced by a fine central performance from Stephen Boxer.

Read Philip's 2003 interview with Stephen Boxer

Reviewer: Philip Fisher