I’ve always had a soft spot for Trafalgar Studios 2. It feels like a tight fit, forgotten spot but it’s slap bang in the middle of the West End. Almost like a secret that makes you feel like you’re on to something when you leave. It is a stomping ground that is alert and intensely cramped. An ideal environment for The Father whose claustrophobic and misogynistic 1887 world is anything but compromised in Laurie Slade’s translation of August Strindberg’s original work.
Strindberg isn’t exactly famed for casting restorative hope onto his audience. If your belief in love is dwindling, your ego’s bruised, or your general faith in the stability of humanity is shaky, don’t expect Strindberg to straighten it out. There is, more often than not, a nod to the fickle, frail and sometimes manipulative sides to human nature.
In this case, a fly on the wall account of a suffocating relationship between a captain (Alex Ferns) and his wife Laura (Emily Dobbs). The tension between them is spurred on by how differently they view the future of their daughter, Bertha. Laura would like to keep her at home, nurturing her with religion and encouraging her to become an artist. The Captain, Adolph, would rather move her to the local town where she’d train to become a teacher. Their argument goes far deeper than mild marital turbulence; the fraught battle of wills damages pride, and manipulation quickly turns to madness.
The Captain is very much stuck in his ways, petulantly used to getting his own way irrespective of his behaviour. Throwing macho tantrums, pounding his chest and persistently reminding his household and staff of exactly who is boss. Written at a time when a revolution in gender equality was beginning to rumble, his rights as a father, a husband and a man are left vulnerable. Ferns’s performance is powerful, covering a whole spectrum of emotional integrity, flitting between joviality, masculinity, tenderness and his trademark aggression. Controversially I found his shouty bits to be the least powerful portions of his performance. The full-blown belligerence became almost unintelligibly roared, which seemed lost compared to the tormenting control he had over the Captain’s downward spiral of emotion.
By contrast, Dobbs’s Laura was completely steady and emotionally unbudgeable. A woman with so much conviction in getting exactly what she wants that she is willing and capable of trampling on anyone and anything that gets in her way. Her performance is intentionally cold and emotionless, with an extra dose of sarcasm in her tone that makes her a little too unsympathetic.
In this twisted and ultimately tragic relationship I missed the inability to pick a side. I wanted to be empathetic to both characters, able to understand the motives of each and be torn between the two. But in the end I was firmly sided with the Captain and his demise. Despite his anger issues and brattishness I left well and truly fighting his corner as I watched his downfall entirely constructed by his missus.
The Father is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 28 March. For tickets and more information, see the Trafalgar Studios website.