For a man like August Strindberg, curdled in the slipstream of Lutheran sin and guilt, Easter, with its promise of salvation, must have held a very special place in his heart. At least, that's the feeling you get from Dominic Dromgoole's Oxford Stage Company revival. Part of Dromgoole’s marvellous turn-of-the-20th century collection of plays spanning the Arcola and Riverside Studios theatres, this particular contribution to the larger Strindberg festival overflows with hope and compassion.
Given its message and the recent Papal example, it's an extraordinary moment for the play, written in 1900, to be on our stages again. The last time was over a decade ago when Katie Mitchell's Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at the Barbican’s Pit took us on a typically harrowing journey to redemption.
Dromgoole does it differently. Like a veritable fairy story for adults, his Easter - framed by Michael Taylor's large, curtained but open windows looking out on birch trees, at once comforting yet scourging – has a limpid goodness and cool Scandinavian beauty about it.
À la Hedda Gabler and Ibsen, there’s the symbolic stove, closed curtains and oil lamps. Good Friday, 1901 and the family – Elis (Bo Poraj), fiancee Kristina (Katherine Tozer), mother Fru Heyst (Sally Edwards) and Benjamin (Nicholas Shaw, making an impressive stage debut) – wait for the sword of Damocles to descend. It does so in the shape of Lindkvist (Edward Peel), a victim of their imprisoned father's embezzlement, who has recently moved nearby and, they anticipate, is about to make them homeless by commandeering all their goods and chattels as payment for debts owed.
Of course, nothing so simple ensues. In a play as much about trust and jealousy as the fear of fear itself, Strindberg strikes a note of religious mysticism with his introduction of Eleonora (Frances Thorburn), the daughter of the household, lately consigned to an asylum. Her sensitivity, like Strindberg's own, to all living creatures, is emblematic of the `holy fool' and `altered states' to which the playwright felt we should, perhaps, all aspire.
That Dromgoole's production does ultimately achieve a beguiling state of grace is undeniable. Violinist Antonia Beattie, too, adds a note of trembling romanticism. But given the perversity of some of Dromgoole's choices, not least casting, it's a sometimes bumpy ride.
Peel's Lindkvist, however, is a joy. Seen ahead of time as some projected monster shadow with accompanying heavy muffled footsteps, in materialisation, his combination of avenging God-figure and twinkling benevolent uncle overewhelms. Goodness comes from trust. Not a bad lesson, after all.