For August Strindberg, love is war. It’s apt then, that the protagonist of The Father is an army Captain, a man who can only see marriage in military terms. His wife – all women, in fact – is the enemy, and married life is a series of conflicts, long campaigns broken up with sudden assaults. The Captain and his spouse Laura are “natural antagonists”, locked in a brutal Darwinian battle. Only the fittest can be allowed to survive.
In Abbey Wright’s swift and taut new production at Trafalgar Studios, we get an action close-up of this battleground. Crowded around three sides of the small studio space – sparsely populated in James Turner’s design other than the mocking Christmas tree – the audience is claustrophobically close to a play more usually seen on bigger stages, lending extra spark to the dramatic pyrotechnics. When the Captain explodes, we can taste his rage and see the gleaming whites of his eyes.
Strindberg’s play captures a family in breakdown. The Captain and Laura’s marriage, under strain for years, finally splinters apart around a pre-paternity test dilemma. How, the Captain begins to ask himself, can he be sure that he is the father of his daughter? With no Jeremy Kyle to solve the mystery, this doubt begins to sour, and Alex Ferns’ bullish, shouty Captain – face dredging up nasty memories of his run as EastEnders baddie Trevor – slowly falls apart, his straight-backed military arrogance gradually unravelling over the course of the action.
While the Captain is at the black heart of the tragedy, there’s a tougher task for Emily Dobbs as slippery, scheming Laura. Although the programme notes are keen to absolve Strindberg of out-and-out misogyny, it’s definitely Laura who comes out of this worse. The Captain might attempt to keep his wife on a tight leash, but it is Laura who intercepts his mail, convinces their new doctor that he is going mad and plants insidious doubts in his mind about the paternity of her daughter Bertha, the helpless bargaining chip shunted between the two. Both partners might be unpleasant, but it seems clear whose side the play is ultimately on.
Dobbs plays Laura as manipulative but frustrated, a caged creature who will do anything to get out. There are moments when she lends the role real bite, as when she furiously retorts “I’m not supposed to want anything, am I?”, but more often she appears as the snake her husband paints her as. It’s problematic, no doubt, and though Wright’s direction, together with Laurie Slade’s new version, creates a certain tension around Strindberg’s often misogynistic portrayals of his female characters, it shies away from confronting these difficulties head on.
Trouble is, to complain that it’s ugly is to miss the point. Strindberg’s players are meant to be ugly, and no one escapes with an unstained character. Still, though, it’s painful to watch. Wright’s production lightens the mood by drawing out some of the plot’s more ridiculous aspects, with the action even feeling faintly farcical at moments, but it’s hard going nonetheless. Like so many of Strindberg’s characters, these aren’t people you feel inclined to spend much time in the company of, and when the curtain call arrives – as at the end of a wearying battle – it brings with it a slight exhalation of relief.