‘I think you’ve got problems’, Lola the maid says in this play. It is something of an understatement. The third collaboration between writer Howard Brenton, director Tom Littler and August Strindberg, The Blinding Light, which has its world premiere here at the Jermyn Street Theatre, explores Strindberg’s ‘Inferno’ crisis in Paris in 1896, a period of insanity the polymath playwright went through and chronicled in his autobiographical work Inferno. Having renounced the theatre and the company of others to pursue alchemy, we are introduced to Strindberg, played by Jasper Britton, as a man very close to the brink of reality and sanity. The play explores this brink, as Strindberg converses with characters whose presence for much of the play we are uncertain of.
Britton plays him as a shambling, hunched figure, whose underclothes and skin are covered in alchemical stains, as are the metallic walls of Cherry Trulluck’s set. In his room in the Hotel Orfila, the simple set vividly suggests the dilapidation in which he lives, and reflects his unhinged state of mind. Into this chaos come three figures who bring with them the reality of the outside world – the maid, followed by his first and second wife, Siri and Frida respectively. Rational beings who try to explain away and dismiss Strindberg’s paranoid visions, they are also people who make no effort to understand what this man is suffering. They add to his problems (‘the Forces’ who are trying to kill him for instance) the issues of daily life – jealousy of infidelity, missing his children, the pressures of court cases and scandals. This is a man with enough problems in real life, before we get to those of his fevered imagination.
Britton brings a wonderful range to Strindberg, switching from the amusing to the furious to the pathetically suspicious, and his portrayal of this shifting and tortured character is set off by the contrast with the three women who appear in his room or his mind. Susannah Harker as his first wife is calm and confidently matronly, while Gala Gordon portrays his second wife, Frida, as a sensuous charmer whose relationship with him, shown in their reminiscences, is much shallower. These two bring out the memory of Strindberg the playwright, who he has supposedly left behind, but it is obvious at times that this is still within him, reminding us that this is a man grappling with ideas of his craft and searching for change, and not just going mad. Strindberg’s insanity is portrayed a little too obviously at times – sudden switches to lurid lighting and distorted sounds signal moments of particular delusion. But for the most part, Littler does not overdirect his insanity, and the moments when Britton plays both Strindberg and his ‘anti-self’ are delightfully sharp.
Reality is a central issue for Strindberg, whose belief in a moveable truth leaves the audience doubting whether all the action is within his mind – even Laura Morgan as the amusingly down-to-earth maid is possibly a vision from the future. It is these other characters, figments of the imagination though they are, that keep him from descending completely into the inferno of madness, the darkness which threatens. Brenton’s play is a well-researched portrayal of the chaos of this period in Strindberg’s life, and a moving picture of a great man trying to solve his problems in any way possible.
The Blinding Light is playing at Jermyn Street Theatre until October 14.