Strindberg's Women: The Stronger / Storm

August Strindberg translated by Michael Meyer
Andy Jordan Productions and Elysium Theatre Company
Jermyn Street Theatre

Sarah Griffiths as Madame X and Alice Frankham as Mademoiselle Y
Sarah Griffiths as Gerda and Paul Herzberg as The Gentleman

These two plays are separated by nearly twenty years: the first written when he was still married for his first wife actress Siri von Essen, the second after two more marriages and divorces for third ex-wife Harriet Bosse and the opening of his Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907. They offer a rather less misogynistic view of women than one might expect from Strindberg.

The Stronger is an encounter in a teashop, a monologue lasting about 20 minutes directed by one actress at another who has had an affair with her husband that gradually reveals that back-story. The second actress makes no reply except for laughter, laughter that may be disguising quite different feelings. The second actress has been sacked by the theatre—the wife declaring it was not through her conniving and it would appear that the husband has moved on to another mistress.

The wife speaks as though she had copied the mistress’s style and tastes to please her husband but that has been put behind her: Jake Murray’s production emphasises the contrast between them with the wife in green satin, black lace and a big hat while the mistress is demure in a tight-buttoned, white blouse.

The wife, Sara Griffiths’s Madame X would appear to be in charge but is she the stronger? If Mademoiselle Y has been replaced in the husband’s affections she’s doing her best not to react to his wife’s goading, but Alice Frankham gives her twinges of feeling she can’t hide. At least she is free of the demands of the man whose whims the wife still has to put up with.

It is a contrived piece of writing and the naturalistic format emphasises its artificiality. If delivered to an imagined target, it might seem more normal. It needs more pauses to await response to seem spontaneous but that would drag out its playing.

Storm, getting its London première in this translation (though a different one played at the Gate a few years ago) presents a husband whose wife left him years back taking their daughter with her. He claims to be happily enjoying the peace of old age, cared for his maidservant Louise whom he’s taught to play chess with him until he can quietly drop off the branch.

But he lives in an apartment where he watches his neighbours quite closely and is being annoyed by their behaviour. Someone died on the floor above (or is it opposite? the setting is simultaneously inside and outside and Strindberg doesn’t always present things logically), now there are new noisy tenants there.

Does this man really not realise (as we discover later) that they are his wife Gerda and her lover? Or does he just refuse to acknowledge it? When her lover abandons her, she seeks reconciliation but he’s having none of it. To add complication, her lover is running off with the daughter of the neighbouring baker.

What starts as a gentle exploration of the elderly idyll of Paul Herzberg’s Gentleman, who looks middle-aged, far from death’s door, in convivial chat with his visiting elegant brother (Robin Kingsland) and neighbouring baker (Douglas McFerran) then melodramatically escalates with flashes of lightning to herald outbreaks of mania, a real storm as well as an emotional one.

Could this be Strindberg admitting to ex-wife Harriet that he realised how impossible he could be? Or, while providing a role for her as an actress, is he saying, “but keep your distance”?

Murray’s production gives us the play as it is, without trying to disguise its shortcomings and illogicality (such as a chess game begun with one partner then resumed with another). Strindberg, after having tried it three times himself, is once again agonising about marriage, but this time does given his women a bit more voice.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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