See some Strindberg, Sweden’s Shakespeare

Who exactly was Swedish playwright Johan August Strindberg? Edvard Munch’s portrait of him (1892) depicts a man with a striking, stern expression and a clenched-fist pose. Richard Bergh’s painting of him (1905) reveals a more whimsical character staring off into the distance with one hand reaching inside his jacket. Strindberg, a painter himself, captured stormy, expressionist seascapes on canvas, which demonstrate his willingness to experiment with modern trends of the time. We can try analysing all sorts of two-dimensional works to discover who he truly was – but let’s be honest. The most effective way to understand the multifaceted Strindberg is to witness one (or two) of his plays.

Born in 1849, Strindberg was a prolific writer with a flair for the dramatic. His career spanned four decades, during which time he wrote over 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, which have go on to influence countless playwrights and authors, including the American realist dramatists of the mid to late 20th century.

Eugene O’Neill himself, the heavyweight of them all, wrote in 1924 that “Strindberg was the precursor of all modernity in our present theatre,” and that “Strindberg still remains among the most modern of moderns, the greatest interpreter in the theatre of the characteristic spiritual conflicts which constitute the drama – the blood! – of our lives today.”

David Mamet, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams are just three of many playwrights who would agree with O’Neill’s assertion.

“Strindberg knew and suffered with our struggle years before many of us were born,” continued O’Neill. “All that is enduring in what we loosely call ‘expressionism’ – all that is artistically valid and sound theatre – can be clearly traced back to his plays.”

Etzel Cardeña, the current director of the International Theatre of Malmö (ITM), is another of his admirers. “Strindberg did not flinch at depicting human foibles, his and others, and throw interesting characters into extreme situations, which he took as far as his knowledge of the human condition and his imagination allowed him,” he said.

“Authors who write mostly about the day’s popular and fashionable views are swept away by the overcoming of that shallow cultural wave by another; authors like Strindberg who seek to go to the depths are less affected even if our cultural mores change.”

In commemoration of 100 years since his death, ITM is next Saturday presenting two chamber plays by Strindberg, The Stronger and Simoom, in English.

The Stronger is a ten-minute play that consists of only one scene with two female characters: Mrs X and Miss Y. It has no action, no plot development, and only one of the two characters on stage speaks. The premise is simple: two actresses run into each other in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. One is married and has been out shopping for Christmas presents for her family, and the other is unmarried and is alone in the restaurant reading magazines and drinking. Strindberg illustrates the duality of the role women play in society, shedding light on the stereotypical but nevertheless very real contrast between women as individuals and as mothers and wives.

Though short, The Stronger is a powerful snapshot of life that one can ponder for hours after.

Simoom, a lesser-known one-act play, will transport you to the French-colonised Algerian desert where a French legionnaire and an Arab woman perform a battle of wills. Simoom, which in Arabic means the hot, dry wind that blows across the Sahara towards the Middle East, explores the power of hypnosis and the idea of false or created memories.

The Stronger and Simoom are short plays with a lasting impact. “Strindberg is a wonderful choice in this regard because he wrote a number of short one-act plays with the intent of providing an intense but not lengthy theatrical experience,” enthuses Cardeña who explains why, out of all of Strinberg’s works, he chose these two plays.

“I had done a staged reading of Simoom in the USA after realising that this play’s driving intensity deserves to be far better known than has so far been the case,” he reveals. “It is mysterious, at times scary, but always ultimately based on strong emotional experiences. The Stronger is a more famous play but typically done as a ‘time piece’ even though I believe that with very minor adjustments the ‘conversation’ between these two actresses it could happen today in the coffee house just behind Dramaten in Stockholm, or in Copenhagen.”

The Stronger & Simoom
Krudttønden, Serrdslevvej 2, Cph Ø; Sat 9 March,16:00 & 19:00; Tickets: 60kr,

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