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The Blinding Light - Jermyn Street Theatre

The set is in some disorder in The Blinding Light, quite deliberately, to depict the state of mind of August Strindberg (Jasper Britton), as well as to demonstrate undoubtedly – in a storyline in which there are so many ambiguities – how far away from what was considered normal in the 1890s, or indeed today, Strindberg had come at a certain point in his life. The play is not to be taken as historically accurate, and while there is a lot of humour in this production, a substantial suspension of disbelief (that is, more than usual) is required to fully appreciate proceedings.

It is, as I observed recently with regards to a different show, difficult to portray the supernatural in theatre. The difficulty is compounded in the challenge set by playwright Howard Brenton to portray characters that may or may not fall under the category of ‘supernatural’. Indeed, all of the characters are plausibly real people, but the dabbling in the occult and conversations with Siri (Susannah Harker) and Frida (Gala Gordon), Strindberg’s first and second wives respectively, had more than a whiff of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit about it. The dry wit, clipped tones, and eventual repetitiousness are evident in both plays too.

This being, in part, about marriage and family life, there are disagreements, and worse. Through the torments foisted upon Strindberg, both internal and external (or is it all internal?), Jasper Britton puts on a masterclass in theatrical character acting. The paranoia becomes very extreme, and the ideas in his mind become increasingly absurd. Walls have ears, as the Ministry of Information used to say during the Second World War, but do they have personalities?

The play is more well-researched than it can come across, perhaps because of a relatively heavy emphasis on what may or may not have transpired in the confines of Strindberg’s hotel room. An early reference to terrorism aroused my curiosity, and having looked it up after the show, it appears there were indeed bomb blasts instigated by anarchists in Paris in the 1890s, the place and era in which this play is set. Elsewhere, the level of power that Siri holds over Strindberg, while somewhat pleasing for a modern audience to see, doesn’t seem commensurate with the sort of influence that a woman would have over her husband, divorced or not, at the time.

Of the supporting roles, character development seemed strongest in Siri, who starts off as calm and collected but gradually becomes more assertive and confrontational. If only the same could be said for the production as a whole. The first half was briskly paced, but as the production got closer to the curtain call, it slowed down considerably. By the closing scenes, it was a little like being on a plane circling Heathrow Airport for some time before finally being given the go-ahead from air traffic control to land. I really do wish the production had started slower and built to a crescendo.

This should not detract too much from the excellent performances from all four cast members – Lola (Laura Morgan), a chamber maid, a forthright and hilarious character, is far from superfluous to the action. While the comedy is plentiful, the production does not make caricatures of anyone except perhaps certain off-stage characters mentioned only in passing, and treats the mental health issues arising from the play sensibly.

The production involves a lot of talking heads, and would only need the most minor of modifications to become a radio play. In so many new plays these days, there are a large number of short scenes to break up the narrative. This play, refreshingly, bucks that trend, allowing the audience to be drawn into longer scenes, uninterrupted. While it could be tighter, particularly, as I say, towards the end, it’s a promising start to a new chapter at Jermyn Street Theatre, now putting on its own shows as opposed to being primarily a receiving house. An intriguing and impassioned play.

Four stars

At Jermyn Street Theatre until 14 October 2017.

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