In one sense, this is a new play, but it's based on five works by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg: The Storm, The Ghost Sonata, After the Fire, The Black Glove and The Pelican. As such, it's a kind of amalgam of a vast array of ideas which in the original works would have amounted to an overwhelming number of acts. Writer Simon Reade has therefore faced the monumental task of having to combine and edit an enormous volume of material taken directly from the originals. The result is a work for a small army of actors who inhabit a relatively small and claustrophobic environment, but are nonetheless well-orchestrated by Director Mark Leipacher.
The setting is a large house -The Silent House - which is located in an area of the town called The Swamp and is split into various apartments and a couple of attic rooms. The apartments and interior of the house are defined by an architect's plan on the floor of the theatre. The acting space and the plan occupy almost the entire theatre with the audience sitting round the extreme edges almost as if forming the outer walls of the house.
What we witness are glimpses of the goings-on in the apartments and the common parts. Think Strindberg meets Eastenders and you won't go far wrong because we flash back and forth between scenes as the lighting changes to highlight various areas of the building. In one apartment, for example, a supposedly wealthy woman argues with her son about food while her dead husband's corpse lies in a coffin awaiting burial. In the basement, a poor couple are making jam and one of the protagonists in a fight in a second floor flat is discovered to be the ex-wife of an older man in another of the apartments. You can see where the similarities with Eastenders and other modern soaps lie. And like soaps, there's a big disaster at the end of the first act which affects the entire house and its occupants. Unlike soaps, though, there isn't a clear plot and we have to puzzle-out what is going on. I suspect every member of the audience could have a different take on what the play is about - and none of them might be wrong. However, it's hard not to feel a strong sense of insecurity about the events and the interactions we witness, though this may also be part of the experience we're invited to share.
The large ensemble cast all seem generally very confident in their roles and there's little to quibble about in terms of the performances. I particularly enjoyed Knight Mantell as the old 'philosopher king', Jacob Hummel, and Joe Wredden as a somewhat mischievous and impish concierge.
I struggle with Strindberg at the best of times, but here I found the experience to be what I imagine wading through treacle might be like. And the treacle got stickier and deeper after the interval where long speeches dominate and confuse rather than clarify. Overall, it's a gloomy piece with a dim view of family, society and community. That said, there are some ingenious moments, for example when the concierge mixes up the old man's papers in the attic. And I also found more humour in the production than the rest of audience seemed to and wondered whether it was supposed to be funnier than first impressions indicated.
On the whole, though, it's a challenging play and concept both for the actors as well as the audience. I couldn't help noticing that a handful of people couldn't muster the will or energy to meet the challenge of the second half, and that's not surprising. But challenges move theatre forward. We may not always understand exactly what's presented to us, but that shouldn't prevent companies flexing their ambitions and trying out innovative ideas. And this is a bold undertaking and one that, given the experience of production, might become clearer. As it stands, I suspect it will divide audiences into those who think they can see the wood from the trees, and those who simply hate it. I'm still trying to get through the treacle.