Strindberg writes fearlessly and honestly about relationships. This is what terrifies me about him and makes me seek him out. He writes about our relationships with our parents and children, our partners, our dreams of reality, and our souls.
When I was preparing for rehearsals for 'The Father' I came across a lecture given by Stella Adler in which she says that Strindberg saw the mind as a trap and believed that every human being was trapped in their own inescapable way. Whereas Ibsen believes that society will get better and in doing so, make the human being better, Strindberg didn't attribute such power to society and felt that the individual was trapped for good.
I found this really instructive in directing 'The Father'; the sense of the play almost being set inside a panic attack. I remember when I assisted on 'Creditors' at the Donmar, Owen Teale said on the first day of rehearsals that he felt the play was like a ghost train. I feel a certain morbid, excited terror of Strindberg. Perhaps because of the way he depicts his characters as being stuck in their own minds with no way out. Relationships are not outlets but compound the hellish experience of living in Strindberg. If you trust, you will be hurt. Attributing so much power to the mind is a frightening start but places the drama in fascinating dramatic territory. It means that the action is always taking place in that twilight place where you aren't quite sure what is real and what isn't.
I think Strindberg is an anarchist. 'The Father' is a restless play. He never settles on a genre for it and he ranges without any self-consciousness between the absurd and cartoonish and the devastatingly intimate portrayal of a man losing his mind or his 'will' or as Strindberg himself describes it, we see "his soul being murdered". I admire the freedom with which he writes massively. He seems to me to be writing from something which is always real, an unconscious place, a place of being lost. The play is outlandish, witty, gruelling, perceptive, shifting all of the time. It's very funny throughout too.
I have been really struck by the child-like quality of the writing. I remember Ingmar Bergman saying about Strindberg that the key to the plays is their rage. I think this is true. But I also think there is something very fragile in there; an aching vulnerability. And it is the combination of the two that is so powerful. Alex Ferns discovered in rehearsals the way in which the Captain yoyos between the domineering, masculine exterior of the military man and the submissive child who wants to be loved. This was a major discovery for us. We felt that these might perhaps be the two main ways in which this man tries to engage with the world, tries to control it and make it relate to him.
The Captain was abandoned by his mother as a child but found surrogate love with his nurse who still lives with him and loves him now. Both he and his wife Laura are trying to make sense of how to love as a grown up, rather than being loved by a parent. And for both of them, the intimate, sexual love is too demanding and dangerous and falls short of the devotion of the love of their parent figures.The hopelessness of this spiral seems to drive the play. They can never love or be loved as much as they were at the start.
It was fascinating too to explore the way in which the overt gender roles suffocate and titillate Laura and the Captain. The Captain is so concerned with being the man that his own personality is lost. Laura dislikes her own lot; disenfranchised even when it comes to the future of her own daughter, disempowered - we have no sense of what her calling might have been but we do have a sense that she feels utterly thwarted by the social set-up.
Strindberg's tireless and childlike study of the world and existence fascinates me too. He is heroic in his search for structure and meaning; he brewed gold, recorded his dreams, captured the spirits of the dead in cemeteries, injected apples with morphine to see if they had nervous systems, experimented with electricity, magnetism, the occult - looking to find an answer to the mystery of existence and the nature of the self. He took photographs of the night sky with a camera he had made himself with no lens so that the picture would be truer. The Captain in The Father has a similarly searching and exacting imagination. His study of meteorites seems like a cry of wonder into the void.
It's not a comfortable place to spend time, but who wants that! It is exhilarating and he is undeniably brilliant and brought to life here by Laurie Slade, who is brilliant in his own right. I have loved directing this play and trying to honour the wild spirit of the work. Here's a quote from Strindberg to finish (which always makes me think of Bob Dylan): "I love her and she loves me. And we hate each other with a wild hatred, born of love."