The Father

Image: Belgrade Theatre

The Father by August Strindberg, new version by Laurie Slade.

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

31st March – 14th April 2012.

Directed by Joe Harmston.

As a follow-up to Nora, I went to see The Father on Thursday with some of the lovely Coventry Feminist Culture Club women. The relationship between these two contrasting plays is fascinating and I’m glad the Belgrade chose to show both during the same season.

Strindberg wrote The Father as a response to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which Nora is an adaptation of. All three are centred on the restrictive gender politics of middle-class marriage in Victorian-era Scandinavia, with a focus on the wife’s reaction to her circumstances. As with Nora, we chose to attend a performance which was followed by a discussion with the writer, director and cast, and, like Nora, there was certainly plenty to talk about.

Sexual politics aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Father simply as a fantastic piece of theatre.  Having been slightly underwhelmed by the performance of Nora, Harmston’s powerful, moving production hit all the spots – provoking plenty of thought and debate but also providing 100 minutes of emotionally-charged and utterly captivating drama. Joe Dixon and Katy Stephens, as the Captain and wife Laura, brilliantly captured the complexity of their characters’ marital power struggle, with their supporting actors each providing a striking counterpoint to their family life.

Having been told about Strindberg’s misogyny I had some idea what to expect from his response to Ibsen’s feminist classic, but I was shocked by the bitterness that seemed  to pervade the whole play. The opening sets up the Captain as a dominant, military patriarch – a typical 19th century husband and father. The introduction of a manipulative, opportunistic shrew, in the form of his wife Laura, is thus a striking contrast to the subservient Nora of Ibsen and Bergman’s plays. It is this woman – a real Iago figure – whose scheming gradually reduces her husband to a blubbering, childlike wreck, wracked with suspicions and doubts about the paternity of his daughter. Notes of Othello run all the way through the Captain’s descent into madness – Laura’s sly allusions, the Captain’s willingness to believe in his wife’s unfaithfulness, and his vitriolic insistence that all women are whores and all men are cuckolds.

What is fascinating though is the way Strindberg allows the audience to glimpse beneath the tangled web of their marriage; in the midst of their violent bickering, there is a flicker of the couple’s real love and affection for each other. Even at her most Iago-like, there is sympathy for Laura because she, like Nora, is trapped in a patriarchal system and fighting for control of her daughter’s upbringing. Sadly, in her bitter struggle to score points over her husband, she’s lost sight of what their daughter Bertha really wants.

Although The Father acknowledges Laura’s social position, it is a far-cry from the feminist play Ibsen first wrote. In Strindberg’s response it is the man who loses out in this brutal battle of the sexes – there is no question of Laura simply walking away empty-handed. The Captain lives in a houseful of women who use their power over him to get what they want. Under pressure to be “The Man” and provide for his family, the Captain’s real self is lost and he reverts to a pitiful little boy, sobbing against the bosom of his faithful nurse. Woman is his “enemy”, she has “castrated” him – I have to say, it reminded me a lot of the accusations made against modern feminists by those poor MRAs. Dixon’s performance was perfectly manic, emotive, (sweaty) and poignant, and very well supported by Stephens as Laura and Barbara Young as the nurse.

As a showcase on the evils of woman, and the ways traditional marriage roles can warp relationships, The Father is brutal and certainly not without a powerful undertone of misogyny, but it’s impossible not to be taken in by the psychological realism of it all. Written 125 years ago, The Father still felt like a strikingly contemporary play, and one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year.

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