Office life may never look the same again after Katie Mitchell’s surpassingly beautiful production of “A Dream Play.” Marking her third defining National revival in as many seasons (after “Three Sisters” and “Iphigenia at Aulis”), Mitchell’s radical take on Strindberg has more in common with the cornerstones of today’s theatrical avant-garde than it does with any conventional canter through the Scandinavian canon. But “A Dream Play” is no ordinary play, so in a sense it has found its ideal production, to which you surrender as you would to, well, a dream.
There haven’t exactly been numerous productions of late of Strindberg’s 1902 play, which comes to the National in conjunction with a complementary exhibition of the dramatist’s paintings at the Tate Modern. And some will carp that we aren’t getting Strindberg’s proper text even now, as might be gleaned from a new adaptation by fellow maverick Caryl Churchill that has been extensively tinkered with by Mitchell and her cast during rehearsals. (The published script of Churchill’s version differs significantly from the production on view.)
But what’s the beef? Even if one accepts Strindberg simply as Mitchell’s starting point, the wit, sensuality and overwhelming visual panache that glide the production through a mesmerizing, intermissionless two hours cannot be denied. The fact is, at a time when avant-garde has become a worn-out, debased word, Mitchell’s staging thrills as sustained reverie, ballet and as its own three-dimensional work of art that insists, as Strindberg notably did, that you meet the event on its own terms.
After all, not every play ends with the stage directions: “The background is lighted up by the burning Castle and now shows a wall of human faces, questioning, mourning despairing. While the Castle is burning, the flower-bud on the roof bursts into a giant chrysanthemum.”
Mitchell, quite forgivably, doesn’t end her production that way, even though Churchill’s version meets Strindberg’s forbidding requirements dead-on. From the opening image of a Friday evening office humming its way to the end of the work week only to be met by the arrival of four angels, Mitchell is clearly meeting the spirit of her chosen playwright, if not entirely the letter.
“Anything can happen; everything is possible and probable,” Strindberg wrote in his preface of the liberating potential of a dream. Add to that a delight in stagecraft that won’t acknowledge the word “no,” and you have Mitchell’s most complete investigation yet into the temporal properties of a form that, under her guidance, has rarely seemed freer and less static.
What happens in “A Dream Play”? A lot, though not much that necessarily responds to ready explication. We get bouts of musical chairs, invisible bees, mysterious knightships and a tutu-wearing corps de ballet out of “Giselle.” At the center of it all is 1950s stockbroker Alfred (the sublime Angus Wright). Touted as the “luckiest man in the world,” he certainly seems to inhabit the most fluid landscape; snatches of the song “Crazy” barely begin to describe his surroundings. Furniture moves, teeth fall out, and yet Mitchell exerts a rigorous rhythm that finds an antic delight in experimentation within a scenario other helmers might subject to rote Eurochic.
The human pulse to Mitchell’s “Dream Play” isn’t the Goddess descended to earth of the Strindberg original, which takes a direct approach to issues of human suffering that Mitchell tends to subsume into her stage business. That’s not to deny the immediately accessible plight of the everyman Alfred, who exists in an aurally collapsible world where the grinding of train wheels sounds like a crying baby.
It’s as if Mitchell has seized upon Mary Tyrone’s great line from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” as her mantra, about “the past (being) the present … and the future, too.” Surrounded by both a first wife (Kristin Hutchinson) and a second (Susie Trayling), and a mother (Anastasia Hille), who supposedly died 30 years before, Wright’s delicious Alfred makes a case for the inevitability of having a secretary (Lucy Whybrow) who is also an angel.
Fine as all the actors are, however, this isn’t really a performer-led piece on the order of Mitchell’s “Three Sisters.” Instead, they’re graceful, willing participants in an occasion larger than themselves, which must have demanded the full expertise of the National’s technical departments.
Far more than such putative stage hallucinations as “Festen,” this “Dream Play” raises the bar on a level of collaboration that here involves a choreographer (Kate Flatt), two designers (Vicki Mortimer and Chris Davey on sets and lighting, respectively) and a formidable sound man (Christopher Shutt) all working at complete imaginative capacity, with music director Simon Allen on hand to plug the gaps not filled by excerpts from “La Traviata,” Schnittke and Schubert’s “Nacht und Traume,” among others.
Too clever by half? Only in the exhilarating sense of a production so attuned to any and all possibilities that it leaves you airborne, much like that rarest of dreams — in the theater or otherwise — you don’t want to end.