August Strindberg’s 1900 drama of marital drudgery and torment has either not aged well or this production fails to hit the right note. Granted, it is a play with many notes – absurdist comedy mixed into its husband-and-wife battle which takes place on their 25th anniversary. It goes from prickling passive aggression to statements of hate, threats of divorce and a third party who, entering the fray, brings strains of gothicism and lurches towards melodrama.
Alice (Lindsay Duncan), a former actress whose marriage ended her career, and Edgar (Hilton McRae), an army captain who failed to climb the ranks, live out their days acrimoniously on a remote island. But in Mehmet Ergen’s production, the couple do not bring the savage comic timing nor the angry intensity needed to bring this story to life. Instead, they make stiff tonal switches, one minute as lovably curmudgeonly as George and Mildred, giving each the side eye, the next minute firing salvoes about death, hate and bad fate.
There is no tension between them and lines about pain and loathing seem to be spoken at a remove. Duncan plays Alice with a blank-faced sarcasm but builds to over-egged theatricality. McRae’s lugubrious captain is far from fearsome. We never believe that they are marooned in mutual torment and it feels jarringly tepid when it should be tumultuous.
The script, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, has been partly modernised – it is liberally sprinkled with F-words and C-words – yet the couple still sound like they are from another time. The sense of an alternate reality creeps into some scenes but then the play returns to awkward half-comic mode. There is a gender swap – Alice’s cousin Kurt is now Katrin (Emily Bruni) – but to no particular end. The brief, vampiric romance between Alice and Katrin feels entirely unconvincing here and Katrin is an especially wooden character.
The play’s critique of laws around divorce and child custody has dated but the central conceit of two people tied in mutual co-dependence, and destruction, has not. It sits in a long, rich dramatic tradition of marital face-offs later seen in works by Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, right up to David Eldridge’s Middle. It should have added resonance in its references to the bubonic plague – characters are braced for quarantine and this chimes with contemporary reports of marriages falling apart during the Covid lockdowns. So it is a feat that it should all go so awry, especially given the talent in its cast and an Oscar-winning writer in Lenkiewicz.
Happiness – a topic of discussion between Edgar and Alice – is famously said to “write white” but sadly they prove misery can be as boring. “This is eternal torment. Is there no end?” says Alice. We know what she means.
At the Ustinov Studio, Bath, until 4 June. Then at Oxford Playhouse, 7–12 June; Cambridge Arts theatre, 14–18 June; Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 21–23 June; and the Arcola, London, 28 June–30 July.