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A CurtainUp London Review
The Blinding Light
"You don't understand your own work at all, do you?." — Siri
"It's about transformation! I want things on the stage to be so real that lives in the audience are changed!"—August
The Blinding Lightv
Laura Morgan as Lola and Jasper Britton as August (Photo: Robert Workman)
Opening Tom Littler's first season as Artistic director at Jermyn Street Theatre is a new play by Howard Brenton. On the day the press had news that Sir Peter Hall had died: one of the twentieth century's foremost directors, both the play's author and director have reasons to remember Sir Peter Hall. Son of a Suffolk stationmaster, a Cambridge scholarship schoolboy at Perse Boys and Cambridge University undergraduate, Sir Peter broke the mould by presenting the unknown Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at a London Theatre Club in the days when the Lord Chamberlain controlled censorship of plays. This was 1955 and he was 24. He went on to be in charge of both the the Royal Shakespeare Company based in Stratford upon Avon and London and later the National Theatre.

I remember his exciting repertory company based at the Old Vic in the late 1990s but my first memories as a Perse Girl were when he presented the prizes at Perse Boys, in the 1960s, bringing his first wife Lesley Caron, who chatted away in French to the French prizewinner. At 14, when visiting Stratford with my French exchange, we saw Sir Peter, in between marriages, eating lunch alone in the restaurant at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Tom Littler was an Associate Director of the Peter Hall Company and paid tribute to him on the night before the play. Howard Brenton spoke about Sir Peter's loyalty in hard times and we knew he was talking about 1980 at the National Theatre when Brenton's play Romans in Britain hit the headlines when a ridiculous and failed private prosecution was taken out by Mrs Mary Whitehouse citing indecency.

Howard Brenton's latest play is about another playwright, August Strindberg (Jasper Britton) in his time of crisis in Paris in the 1890s. Strindberg wrote about this bizarre time in a book written, not in Swedish, but in French, L'Inferne or Inferno. The biographical play The Blinding Light precedes a new version of Miss Julie by Howard Brenton which opens at Jermyn Street in November.

In the UK, we forget that in Sweden, Strindberg's reputation was not just as a playwright but extends to both writing novels and as an artist. Looking at the Jermyn Street set we could be forgiven for thinking this is an artist's studio. What we took to be green paint is copper sulphate and is a part of Strindberg's reversion to his early years studying chemistry as he tries to solve the Alchemist's riddle as how to turn base metal into gold. His first encounter in this hotel room turned laboratory is with Lola (Laura Morgan), a feisty maid, who has been sent to clean the room and who would like to be paid in gold.

In 1896 Strindberg's naturalistic plays Miss Julie and The Father had been very successful in Paris but he seemed to be suffering from writer's block and unable to produce anymore plays. Strindberg was always fascinated by the mystical and may have seen the alchemical process of putrefaction and breakdown as something he would have to go through personally before he could once again be creative. What we do know is that Strindberg was in a mental crisis and probably suffering from psychotic episodes as he talks about imaginary people who are watching him through the walls. Lola the maid tells him that his two wives are talking about him in a nearby cafe.

It is through the arrival of both wives that we learn more about Strindberg's marriages and married life. His first wife Siri (Suzanne Harker) was married to an aristocrat when she met August. This biographical detail when coupled with Strindberg's mother being a servant throws light on the mistress servant relationship in Miss Julie.

Looking matronly, Suzanne Harker talks about her acting career and the children and they bicker. Later, Frida (Gala Gordon), his glamorous second wife arrives in the hotel room and they discuss his time as a part of the German avant garde movement in Berlin with him reminding us of Frida's affair with Frank Wedekind, the author of, most famously, Lulu and Spring Awakening.

Red lighting shifts will illustrate deep paranoia and Max Pappenheim's interesting soundscape will bring the chemical experiments to life. Costumes are period including the silk dress that Frida wore without corsets and nineteenth century exaggerated underwear. This Strindbergian episode is contemporaneous with the naughty nineties and Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley in London. Wilde and his wife Constance were both involved in the dress reform movement.

The Blinding Light is stuffed with clever references to Strindberg's contemporaries and Scandinavian or Germanic playwriting rivals with many barbs of wit as he reacts to the implied competition. Jasper Britton's stellar performance is pale eyed and tousled haired, switching between moments of sheer paranoia and lucidity.

Brenton's detailed research has put him in charge of this material which means that all who see The Blinding Light will no longer, as I have done, perceive August Strindberg as a mere misogynist but as an altogether more complex thinker and writer, as well as a wit. Coupled with Tom Littler's perceptive direction in the intimate Jermyn Street theatre we feel that we have actually met Strindberg and his wives and liked them.

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The Blinding Light
Written by Howard Brenton
Directed by Tom Littler
Starring: Jasper Britton, Laura Morgan, Susannah Harker, Gala Gordon
Set Designer: Cherry Truluck for Lucky Bert
Costume Designer: Emily Stuart
Lighting Design: William Reynolds
Costume Design: Sophia Simensky
Sound Design and Composer: Max Pappenheim
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking to 14th October 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th September 2017 performance at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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