“I’ve never been clever enough to know if life is serious or a joke.” Edgar’s line succinctly captures the action in Strindberg’s battle-of the-sexes play.
My first encounter with this much-adapted work (Part I of II is most often performed as the whole—Conor McPherson’s fresh version streamlines the thrust and parry and modernizes various translators’ understanding of the playwright’s meaning) was in Bulgaria eight years ago (cross-reference below). Marvellously, it was given in Russian with a valiant attempt by Surtitles to keep up with the dialogue as the frequently lightning-paced exchanges flew by (both the actors and the technology were at times defeated in their purpose—notably the card game). Nonetheless, then as here, the acting was so uniformly excellent that the intent of the oft-married author was never in doubt.
Director Martha Henry’s special skill of drawing out nuanced, gritty performances from the cast was ideally realized having three of the Shaw’s finest actors playing the leads.
Pompous, uncaring, thoughtful or—occasionally wiser than one might expect—Jim Mezon roared through the role of Edgar, knowing full well that his colleagues could match or purposely contrast him every step of the argumentative way.
As Alice, Fiona Reid readily spanned the emotional spectrum from hubby-fuelled hysteria, abject stoicism (might there be anything to celebrate on their silver wedding anniversary but the passage of time?) hot-blooded passion and well-practised flippancy that preserves her sanity more often than not.
Cousin Kurt was the stylish third wheel in the “bickerfest” who has troubles and secrets of his own. The repressed evildoer (lusting for Alice lo these many years) had a fine advocate in Patrick Galligan who let his craven wanting rear its ugly head only to find himself rebuffed in a stunning moment of sadomasochism that may well be Kurt’s most searing humiliation or—possibly—the beginnings of a bondage dance for the ages.
Binding the humans together and serving as a further metaphor of an imprisoned couple on an ethically empty isle, Landon Oak quietly went about his business as Sentry, yet even this ceremonial role was not immune from injury.
In the discreet manner of Franco Zeffirelli (cross-reference below), William Schmuck crafted a set that silently spoke volumes about the “inmates” who seemed unable to slip their largely self-imposed bonds of destruction and despair. Do the barred windows (subtly reinforced with the wall treatment squares) safeguard the inhabitants or underscore their plight? The overall aura of darkness (in furniture, floor coverings, and much of the costuming) was sporadically broken by brief shocks of pinks and reds emanating from playing cards, scattered-about roses and the captain’s dress uniform. Louis Guinand’s lighting ensured that the few moments of brightness gleamed far outside the den of troubled souls.
As the curtain fell, rather at one with zany antics of the Monty Python troupe whenever they turned the vagaries of life into farce, the love-lost couple found themselves laughing all the way to their silver anniversary. Crossing the finish line at any cost seemed so much more important than the race. JWR