There has been much interest in the work of August Strindberg over recent weeks. Caryl Churchill’s new version of A Dream Play recently opened at the National and the Swedish playwright’s paintings are currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate Modern. Easter, appearing here in a new translation by Gregory Motton, is not one of Strindberg’s better known pieces, but this is very much in keeping with the Oxford Stage Company’s philosophy of revaluating and reinvigorating underperformed plays.
There is a refreshing simplicity to this new production – midway through its short spring tour – a pleasant unfussiness. Motton points out in the programme notes that: The fashion these days is for versions, and he has a point. Major new versions of both Lorca and Ibsen are currently being staged in London venues, but, despite the recent trend, he was keen to keep as close as possible to the play’s original language and meaning. It’s a creative choice that, for the most part, pays off; Easter may have been written in 1900, but Motton’s belief that there is enough in the original text to engage a modern audience is justified.
The drama takes place over three days of Easter week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Eve. Petulant, put-upon Elis Heyst (Bo Poraj) is trying to hold his family together. The Heyst patriarch is in prison and the family are in considerable debt; Elis’ younger sister has been institutionalised and one of his students is overtaking him professionally and failing to credit him as he should. As if that weren’t enough to cope with, Lindkvist, one of the family’s creditors, has moved in across the street and they are alarmed frequently by him sauntering by their house, cane swishing (accompanied by menacing music.)
The family are doing their best to get on with things: Elis and his fianc, Kristina (crisply played by Katherine Tozer) are looking forward to a summer wedding. But then Eleonora arrives unexpectedly, in muddy boots and clutching a stolen daffodil, disturbing things further. Played with real charm by Frances Thorburn, Eleonora is an unavoidably odd girl, a hugely sensitive young woman, she views the world in a determinedly distinctive way, and her inability to stifle her many eccentricities has led to her being shut away. It is hard to pinpoint her exact age, as she veers from overtly childlike behaviour to sombre perceptiveness, but her character is the spark this play needs to keep its bleakness at bay and her presence accounts for most of the play’s amusing moments; a static chill occasionally creeps into the proceedings whenever she is offstage.
The play itself is not without flaws. Motton’s faithfulness to the style of the day means that from time to time the play seems rather cool and stilted. The opening scenes feel hurried, leaving the audience struggling to catch up and Kristina barely figures in the final act, the resolutions of which are a little to neat. The end result seems slighter than it should be; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Strindberg was striving for, other than the fact that people can surprise us, that everyone has the capacity for both goodness and darkness within them, for both gold and filth.
Michael Taylor’s set design is highly atmospheric. Large, blue-washed windows dominate the stage, framing leafless winter trees; bundles of leather-bound books dot the floorboards. It’s a bright, airy creation that has a positive effect on the action. Easter has been described as Strindberg’s most tender play and it is certainly less bleak in outlook than many of his other, more familiar dramas. The endearingly erratic Eleonora saves the play from ever becoming too cold and rigid. Without her it’s doubtful the drama would engage quite as much as it does.