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Published 1 October 2008

If Strindberg’s tale of obsession, manipulation and the effects of love had been written today, Owen Teale’s Gustav would probably have been labeled a stalker, a man driven by one overwhelming desire, writes Matthew Amer.

David Greig’s version of Strindberg’s original explores the power struggles within one woman’s two marriages – the first failed, the second failing – in three two-handed scenes, as various parties vie for superiority over the other, planting ideas, twisting and manipulating like chiropractors of the soul.

Tom Burke plays young artist Adolph, obsessed with his older wife Tekla (Anna Chancellor), but both physically and emotionally crippled by his relationship. While she is away, gallivanting or not, he confides in new friend Gustav who, in Teale’s hands, is like a richly voiced devil on his shoulder, whispering tales and feeding insecurities.

Chancellor’s Tekla is very much the modern woman; confident in herself, strong of character, bold enough to take control and mistress of her own destiny. In taking a younger husband she has bucked the trend set by her first marriage, molding her spouse, rather than being molded. In 2008, none of this seems extraordinary, yet Strindberg, writing in the 1800s, questions this developing role of women. Is it right that she should be out by herself? People might talk. Is her influence really destroying everything Adolph had going for him?

That premise might be outdated, but the power battles and manipulation are as universal as they have ever been. In a world of celebrity stalkers, Teale’s obsessive Gustav, a man who preaches reason and claims to be an emotional island but is driven by vengeful passion, reflects any number of unhinged sociopaths. The fear lies in the calm, controlling divisive approach he takes to his work.

Though Gustav’s arguments are those of a madman, some of his claims about the usury of Tekla ring true. Will the vivacious, head-strong woman portrayed by Chancellor just chew up Burke’s boy-in-a-man’s-world?

Under the direction of Alan Rickman, the plot moves forward at pace as tension – both sexual and aggressive, the boundaries blurring – builds between the three pairings. Within 90 minutes of real time drama, three lives are changed irrevocably. Ben Stone’s set design has the stage surrounded by a moat. For Strindberg’s characters, this was not protection enough from each other.



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