Unless it belongs to you or someone with whom you’re intimate, listening to a detailed account of a dream can be tedious. As can seeing it performed on stage.
The detailed account in question here is August Strindberg’s. Or at least it was originally. British dramatist Caryl Churchill adapted Strindberg’s expressionist play and relocated it, for as much as a dream can have a definable ‘setting’, from 1900s’ Sweden to 1950s’ London. Then director Katie Mitchell – taking artistic licence from Strindberg’s own preface to the text – worked with her company of actors to make further cuts and alterations based on their own dream experiences.
The resulting piece, a testament to creative collaboration, departs significantly from Strindberg’s, in which the god Indra sends his daughter down to earth where she embarks on a journey of discovery into the depressing hearts and minds of mankind. Here, the play centres on one mortal character, stockbroker Alfred Green. He becomes the dreamer, through whom all of Strindberg’s surrealistic sequences, and several new ones, are refracted.
Working late one night at the office, Alfred falls asleep and is ‘awakened’ by a quartet of angels, each resembling his secretary Agnes. Over the next hour and 40 minutes, Alfred, with Agnes as his occasional guide, is assaulted by a disjointed “mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations” (as Strindberg describes a dream). Though it’d be overstatement to call it a plot, by concentrating on Alfred, “the loneliest man in the world”, this new version of A Dream Play does provide some semblance of story by allowing us to pick out details from Alfred’s life, be they real or imagined. A dead mother, two ex-wives, a lost child.
As everyman Alfred, Angus Wright anchors on-stage proceedings and mirrors the audience’s confusion with (and acceptance of) each bizarre and increasingly nightmarish shift of circumstance. One moment, he’s himself as a child hiding under the kitchen table, then an aged man waiting for his fickle performer wife at a stage door, then being knighted by Queen Victoria, then chastised by his teacher for not completing his homework. The rest of the nine-strong ensemble have little to say but much to do in the rapid scene changes and assumption of myriad characters.
On Vicki Mortimer’s set of compressing walls and parallel double doors, Mitchell and her company create some stunning set pieces and visually arresting tableaux. Fittingly in a work that verges on pure dance, with the actors well drilled in Kate Flatt’s prop-driven choreography, the most memorable of these is a recurrent line of pink tutu-ed male and female ballerinas. Yet, despite such riches in Mitchell’s production (top marks too to Simon Allen’s music and Christopher Shutt’s haunting soundscape) and the success of capturing “the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream” – which still feels experimental more than a century after Strindberg first attempted it – you can’t escape that first-mentioned feeling of tedium and, frankly, pretension.
“What is there to understand? It’s all a load of bollocks!” cries one of “the great and the good” when a cupboard containing the meaning of life is opened to reveal emptiness. I wouldn’t go quite so far as that in judging A Dream Play, but I understand the sentiment. Still, a gorgeous production, even if a frustrating play.
- Terri Paddock