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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Dream Play
Cottesloe Theatre       Winter-Spring 2005

A classic surrealistic play is presented in an adaptation by a modern writer, further adapted and altered by director and cast into a collage of images that uses the original only as a jumping-off place.

And your enjoyment of the result will depend entirely on your capacity for appreciating non-linear visual theatre.

August Strindberg's 1902 play tells of a female spirit who takes earthly form as the woman Agnes in order to experience the human condition.

After a string of adventures tied by the stream-of-consciousness logic of a dream - time speeds up or slows down, characters and settings change from moment to moment - she concludes that the essence of the human experience is suffering, with the only relief coming in dreams or death.

Starting with Caryl Churchill's new adaptation, director Katie Mitchell and the company filtered Strindberg's play through improvisations, cutting whole scenes and inventing new ones to give the text a whole new focus.

Agnes is reduced to a secondary figure, while another character is brought to the fore, and the play's scenes reordered and reshaped to fit a newly-created personality and history for him.

The result turns the whole play into a nightmare of the stockbroker character, with scenes reshaped to reflect his obsessions, fears and concerns. 

At the centre, his failed marriages, along with Agnes's, become reflections of his childhood memories of his parents. But all this is mixed in with other symbolic and nightmarish sequences.

Recognizable nightmare moments, like appearing in public without his clothes, or finding himself in a tutu, mix with more obscure symbolism, like a cupboard from his childhood that inexplicably haunts him, and ballet dancers who wander in and out, along with ballroom dancers - the latter triggered, it would seem, by a memory of his mother dancing with her lover.

Sequences are repeated, mirrored, or played with one incongruous element. They're described or reacted to in voice-over, played in slow motion, speeded up, and run in reverse.

Angus Wright as the broker and the other nine members of the cast, each tripling and quadrupling roles, race in and out with instant changes of costume, identity and reality levels, and all credit must go to them for managing to keep their heads (and their places in the script).

You will either be enchanted by the visual imagery and evocation of dream-like reality or find it all unbearably soporific after fifteen minutes and live in dread at the prospect of another hour and a half of the same.

I'm afraid I couldn't help being reminded of some of the more extreme experimental theatre companies of thirty years ago for whom the creation and rehearsal process was an end in itself, with the job of communicating to an actual audience a nuisance.

I am sure Katie Mitchell and her actors learned a lot from preparing this production. I wonder if perhaps they lost sight of the fact that there would be people out front who would want to get as much from the experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  A Dream Play - National Theatre 2005

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