The Defence – Chris Dunstan and August Strindberg in a battle of wits. (Sydney Fringe Theatre Review)

She is the victim of a false belief…namely that woman – this stunted form of human being compared to man, the lord of creation, the creator of civilization – is equal to man or might become so. Embracing this absurd ambition leads to her downfall. Absurd because a stunted form, governed by the laws of genetics, will always be stunted and can never catch up with the one that is ahead…. Not by means of equal education, not through equal voting rights, not after disarmament, not even if men stopped drinking…. (August Strindberg in the introduction to Miss Julie xvi)

literature is… “is the product of a strange rain of blood, sweat, semen, and tears” – Roberto Bolaño

In the peculiar case of August Strindberg, we have a writer who loathed women with such a disproportionate hysteria, that he reduced them to their barest essence in his work, hoping to reveal them as lesser human creatures than males.  Still, however (and rather bizarrely) women are plagued with the same ambition, but it is their genetic inability to fulfill on that ambition that drives them to a madness of fury, insanity or in the case of Miss Julie, suicide, according to Strindberg. And yet, in a kind of happy accident, by reducing the female character to a position off her pedestal, he accidentally revealed the weight of misogyny that females live under. Virginia Wolf was to write about this at some length in A room of One’s own, and even more strangely, agree with Strindberg, whom she criticizes, that females do not produce in the same way males do.  Wolf attributes this to environmental factors and misogyny, however, rather than a genetic failure.

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This hysterical hatred of Strindberg’s (and it must be called hysterical) is usually explained by his having lost his mother at a young age.  In other words, his own faults were judged to be environmental. His brutal attack on females, in his writings, but more horribly played out in his relationships in his life time, continues to be a problem today, for Strindberg’s plays are still favorites to be performed; Miss Julie is currently playing at the Belvoir. The challenge remains for companies wanting to perform Strindberg, study him or research his writings, to balance this hysteria against his enormous talent. Strindberg liked to meld them into one and the same, and this adds to the difficulty of separating them.

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In The Defence, Chris Dunstan seeks to examine the legacy of Strindberg, both in terms of his exciting impact on theatre, and his complex relationships with women and the possibility these intersect.  He is interested in where each might be at cause of the other, or are they not connected? A man like Strindberg seemed to need to dehumanize the females around him in order to create; the question is, was the misogyny a central ethic resulting in his success or did it prevent something even greater that might have been possible inside of Strindberg?

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Chris Dunstan sees this aspect, this struggle between the features of masculinity that degrade a female in order to use her to create, and the features that can stand independent of her and create without that relationship, in contemporary theatre and he wants us to consider the possibility that we might have inherited this from Strindberg.  Or rather, that Strindberg gives a kind of permission by virtue of his success and talent, to allow for misogyny. Or rather, that misogyny is an inevitable subtext of male creativity. Or rather that misogyny is a male problem that fucks him up, forcing him to externalize something that should be dealt with internally rather than in projection. All these ideas are visited simultaneously in this excellent piece of theatre currently showing at the Fringe Festival called The Defence.

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The Defence begins with a man laying naked on the ground, his body vulnerable and exposed to the audience. A woman, dressed in male underwear walks onto the stage and marches around speaking “Stindberg” in a declarative voice that at the same times asks a question, provides and answer and provokes a mystery. Using many techniques devised by Strindberg himself, the play will progress until we realize she is Strindberg and the naked man, who will rise, put on a dress, step into a cage and allow to have his mouth taped shut, is Strindberg’s first wife Siri von Essen. They will play out sections from The Defense of a Fool, Strindberg’s famous book regarding his relationship with his first wife.

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However, as Chris Dunstan says in the notes from the play, it wasn’t until they began the rehearsal process, that the truly complex issues of gender relationship began to surface, and Dunstan was forced to recognize aspects of Strindberg’s behavior surfacing in this, and other theatre rehearsals he had been a part of in the past. For someone who felt that women were so significantly less than men, Strindberg was attracted to (and in many cases married) strong women who were powerful and successful in their own right.  Of course a misogynist needs to dominate and belittle powerful women, because they are his greatest threat and they are the greatest challenge to his theories, but what of the creative male who is not a conscious misogynist trying to reconcile the female presence with his masculinity charged creativity?  Here, Chris Dunstan, Matt Abotomey and Catherine McNamara joined forces to add a new dimension to the play that examines contemporary issues of the performance rehearsal room. In the most evocative kind of mirror-maze, they use a play, within a play, within a play within a play to create the twists and turns that lead to the subjugation of one artist over another.

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The result is a thrilling work that keeps you fascinated and on the edge of your seat. Catherine McNamara is mesmerizing as the woman, playing Strindberg, and his nemesis at the same time. Around her Brett Johnson and Douglas Niebling play the men, comfortable in their masculinity and yet unknowingly challenged by the very presence, the existence of Catherine. It is a fascinating watch as they float from blokey unconsciousness to an engagement with the female that begins to touch on Strindberg’s own inner smoking volcano. The script is well written and delightfully performed, so that even with the heavy material, the play never gets bogged down in the universality of its questions nor the enormity of its ambitious scope.

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This is a rare opportunity to see a truly experimental work, the kind that is usually only available in Sydney at Fringe time, by a set of talented young writers and performers. This is challenging theatre that stimulates and excites rather than dulls and exhausts.

The Defence is playing at the PACT theatre in Erskenville from 4 to 14 September.

You can purchase your tickets here.

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