August Strindberg, Swedish playright, novelist and painter, was not a man of niceties. He wrote with fierce passion, tearing society's polite fabric to shreds, raging and fuming at the barriers that defined and constricted human life and relationships in 19th century Sweden. More a tormented visionary than a wise sage, he found the joy of life in "life's cruel and mighty conflicts". A hundred years after his death then, the challenge for the contemporary theatre director is to ensure that in staging Strindberg, that outrage and candour does not end up lying interred with his bones.
Strindberg is still theatres darling, though carrying him across, both in time and space, remains a complicated matter. The Strindberg weekend, organised recently in Delhi by the Swedish embassy and Old World Culture, which saw a reading of The Father and a stage production of Miss Julie, had to grapple with some of those problems. Both the plays The Father about the manipulative, restrictive role played by mothers in rearing children and Miss Julie about a high-born aristocratic woman's one-night sexual escapade with her father's valet had led to much indignation when they were written. Maintaining that radical streak is now a tall order, when sexual proclivity is unlikely to be censured by an urban audience and the conflicts of social strata though a reality is something to be glossed over.
In spite of these obvious challenges, Sohaila Kapoor-Charnalia, who directed the two Strindberg plays, remains true to the text, a period kitchen set hosting the aggressively sexual struggle for one-upmanship playing out between Julie (Vidushi Mehra) and Jean (Damandeep Sidhu) with Jeans fiancé Kristine (Aarti Nayar) a somewhat passive player in the background. The sex itself, a turning point in the play that transforms Julie from a domineering coquette to a hapless pawn ordered about by Jean, remains off-stage, as making it blatantly sexual would only serve to titillate the audience, says Kapoor-Charnalia.
What emerges is an able enactment of a wide and powerful range of emotions, but not one that is able to establish the intellectual bridge from Strindbergs milieu to the present times. When Julie shrieks in anger, calling Jean a minion, to which the latter retorts [that she is] a minions whore, a lackeys harlot, it evokes audience laughter that can only suggest an anachronistic disconnect with the sheer potency of the moment. And it also suggests that no matter the challenges or pitfalls, an adaptation is sometimes the only way out to refocus interest in a classic even while keeping it relevant.