August Strindberg, in a new version by Laurie Slade
Jagged Fence Productions
Trafalgar Studios 2
August Strindberg had a deep understanding of gender wars and a desire to explore them. As we hear in Laurie Slade's mildly modernised, new version of The Father, “love between the sexes is war”.
In this case, like the married couple in The Dance of Death, rather than the Queensbury Rules, Adolf and his much younger wife Laura appear to prefer their own version of a bloody bare knuckle fight to the death.
It is the fate of Scottish-accented Alex Ferns as soldier turned scientist Adolf to be marooned in a “houseful of tormented souls” otherwise populated exclusively by women: wife, daughter, mother-in-law and nurse. He might love them all but it takes little for insecurities to creep in.
The early skirmishes set the scene for what can be a gruelling 100 minutes, as the ex-army Captain attempts to asserts his parental rights by sending his beloved daughter, Bertha to live in town with a lawyer.
Whether her motivation is the prospective loss of a daughter or a feminist urge that offends Emily Dobbs playing Laura, the wife’s revenge is disproportionate.
After trying to win Adolf over with her womanly charms and failing, Laura begins to sow the seeds of doubt in a number of different areas.
First, she picks up on a loose remark by asking Adolf whether he is certain that Bertha is his own daughter.
Next, she enlists the assistance of her brother who is a priest, the very reasonable doctor-in-residence and even June Watson's elderly nurse, who had brought up Adolf almost as her own from infancy.
Each is spun a slightly different story in an attempt to make them believe that the increasingly impotent and frustrated Adolf has lost his marbles.
Where one could question the motivations a little is in the alacrity with which Laura calmly lies to achieve her ends when the truth might have been at least as effective with such a volatile victim.
In any event, she gets close to persuading the man himself that he is mad in an evening that was never likely to end happily for the bullish soldier who constantly struggles to keep his temper in check.
Even so, Strindberg continues to inject surprises into a psychological drama that has almost as much to say to viewers today as it must have had when it was originally written in 1887.
Under the direction of Abbey Wright, The Father proves to be a claustrophobic experience that sees Alex Ferns giving an outstanding performance, getting strong support from both Emily Dobbs and June Watson in a production that may not contain too many laughs but is well worth the trip into town.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher