A Madman's Confession

Harriet Mann
Deadpan Productions
White Bear Theatre
(2009)

Publicity image

In 1875 the 26 year old August Strindberg, then working as a librarian, fell in love with a Swedish-speaking Finnish baroness, Siri von Essen, who three years earlier had married an aristocratic army officer Carl Gustaf Wrangel af Sauss. She had aspirations to be an actress and leaving her husband obtained a divorce. In 1877 played her first role at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre and married Strindberg. A decade later Strindberg drew on this part of his life for an autobiographical novel En Dåres Försvaltal, in translation variously called A Fool's Defence, A Madman's Defence or, as here, A Madman's Confession, and it is this novel that is the source material for Mann's play.

Although Mann, who also directs, is credited as writer, publicity describes it as having been 'created through a unique devising process.' There is no indication what that process is but it results in is a series of brief scenes centred around the dining table in the house of the Baron and Baroness that form a sequence of snap shots of the relationships over the time between their meeting with Strindberg and the Baroness leaving her husband. The passing of time is emphasised by long and somewhat ritualised scene changes. Not only do the lights dim and props get rearranged but all the characters first leave the stage and then re-enter, there is a lot of blowing out or relighting candles and something significant seems to be intended.

These scene changes have a sense of theatre about them that is stronger than is apparent in the scenes themselves which offer a succession of situations each containing a snippet of fact or marking a development between the characters. They are largely played in a very restrained fashion, which highlights those moments when emotion is displayed more strongly. Despite the intimacy of the playing, presumably intended to increase the audience's concentration though sometimes making it difficult to catch every word, and the domesticity of pouring drinks and the baby crying, the characters never seem to comfortably inhabit the space and we are never given more than minimal information about them.

Henry Blake makes a very romantic looking Strindberg but while the plot has him falling in love with the Baroness he gets little chance to show it, nor do we discover much about his aspirations. In one scene we discover he has had a nervous breakdown and has attempted suicide but we do not discover why and there is no attempt to show that episode dramatically. Justin Segal's Baron is carrying on an affair with his young niece (but offstage - she never appears), which perhaps explains why he shows no reaction to his wife's involvement with Strindberg, but there is nothing to suggest a relationship between the three that warrants his initiating toasts to their undying friendship. The Baroness (Lucy Bruegger) is at least allowed to lose her temper when discovering her husband's infidelity and on leaving (I'm not quite sure for where) she kisses Strindberg in front of him. The development of her attraction to Strindberg is never explored though her wish to help the family finances following the failure of her investments by becoming an actress does mark her out as a 'new woman.' Ironically it is Joyia Fitch as the maid Elsa who silently says most about these relationships with her sour face and sardonic response to what is going on.

There is certainly material here for an interesting play but it needs a more detailed unfolding, more depth and more time to allow the actors to expand their characterisations and add to these brief glimpses into Strindberg's story. Or perhaps Deadpan's 'unique devising' did do just that and then decided to savagely cut it down to fit a 60 minute slot, though those extended scene changes suggest this could not be the case.

Until 3rd January 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton