Jermyn Street Theatre Autumn 2017
One dramatist's sympathetic salute to another, Howard Brenton's new drama imaginatively fills a small gap in the known facts of August Strindberg's life while proposing a metaphor for that playwright's and any artist's creative process.
That's a lot to get into a play, and The Blinding Light is a talky and sometimes rather long-feeling 90 minutes.
Reeling from attacks by critics and moralists, Strindberg in 1896 is going flamboyantly mad in a Paris garret, rejecting literature in favour of alchemy. He is visited by three women, his two ex-wives and a cynical chambermaid, who each in their own ways try to get him back to sanity and writing.
But are they actually there or are they, like the mysterious Them spying on him through the walls or the Anti-Strindberg who sometimes takes over his body and debates with him, the products of his schizoid paranoia?
Whoever or whatever they are, they force him to examine and clarify his thinking, if only to be able to reject them. His particular brand of alchemy, he explains, involves finding a legendary substance containing all the elements and then painstakingly purifying it, burning away all that is not gold.
That is not at all a bad metaphor for the struggle of a writer attempting to strip away literary artifice to depict naked reality (though it owes something to the apocryphal sculptor's explanation that he starts with a block of marble and just cuts away everything that isn't the statue).
It comes a little too late in the play, when everything else that's going on – the mix of flirting and fighting with each of the women, the attacks of madness, the undigested chunks of biography ('We first met. . . .') that fill in the backstory – may have let us lose sight of Strindberg the playwright.
While director Tom Littler can't disguise the play's mechanical structure (solo scene, scene with first women, solo scene, scene with second woman. . . .) or bring much life to the backstory sequences, he has guided his actors to lively and engaging performances.
Onstage almost without interruption and playing a man almost unrelievedly manic, Jasper Britton carries the play, and our sympathies, admirably. Although the three women are more plot devices than fully imagined characters and serve parallel functions, Laura Morgan (maid), Susannah Harker (first wife) and Gala Gordon (second) nicely differentiate them, providing some of the play's humour in the contrasts.
The Blinding Light remains pretty heavy going, but there is gold mingled with all the other elements, worth the effort to find.
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