The latest from upcoming playwright Nathan Joe, The Stronger, opened last night at the Basement Theatre. An extension of the August Strindberg classic, the unconventional piece capitalises on lavishly uncomfortable silence.
In a prior chat with Joe, the writer acknowledged the awkwardness of the piece. Surprisingly short, it is a play not often performed by itself. Joe describes this as both a “shame,” and a partial motivator for his recreation. The production opens with a modernised Strindberg script, followed by a number of other “two-hander” interactions. Remaining relatively honest to Strindberg, these later pairs feature the repetitive yet continually honest experience of the first interaction.
The Stronger, directed by Patrick Graham and presented by Theatrewack, opens in the bar of the Basement, before travelling upstairs to the dressing room and then back. This unorthodox staging is the reason for the relatively late start to the show, but also justifies it. Audiences view the play “mostly standing and observing,” but through multiple scene changes, this experience never enters the realm of discomfort. In fact, the only discomfort in The Stronger is the oddly enjoyable kind. As one character delivers their monologue, their counterpart works the arguably tougher task of reacting silently. Joe highlights this as “almost an actor’s exercise”. This could easily result in a novice portrayal, with actors using “big gestures” to convey emotion. But The Stronger cast avoids this trap, instead “processing thoughts or emotions very subtly”. As an audience member you find yourself willing the voiceless character to speak up, speak in defence, pretty much say anything! Yet, this desire is also coupled with a satisfaction over their silence. Reactions are conveyed more than adequately through side glances and small facial shifts, an accurate image of subtle human experience.
Rehearsals for 'The Stronger"
The Stronger also achieves success through its storytelling. While the characters of the scenes are minorly connected, the actual plots themselves aren’t. Joe revealed to me that originally they intended to use five completely different pairs, but an inability to find the right actors stumped this. As a result, one character is double-casted, while another features in multiple scenes. The unintended result of this is actually quite moving, as characters like the originally silent Beth (Courtney Eggleton) reveal their multiple facets later in the play. Another particularly moving character is the seductive Amelia (Kelly Gilbride) - playing only a voiceless character, the young actor reveals a complicated personality. Amelia also serves as an unassuming guide, throwing audience interaction into the mix by moving the crowd upstairs.
Joe stated that part of his motivation to work within the prepared structure of The Stronger was for “selfish reasons” - the Strindberg basis of the piece allowed for a slightly less strenuous project. This may have been his intent but it certainly doesn’t appear in the result. The Stronger is an extremely enjoyable experience in human interaction, and this is primarily because of Joe’s additions. Accomplishing a sizeable feat in presenting enjoyment in awkwardness, The Stronger only falters in its final moments. As the cast members call everyone around for their final bow, the unique realness of the play is abruptly lost.
Rehearsals for "The Stronger"
Unconventional, unnerving and surprisingly satisfying, The Stronger is the perfect night out this weekend. Closing tomorrow night, you'll need to catch it quick, otherwise keep an eye out for Nathan Joe’s future projects early next year. The Stronger is an open event, asking only for a hopeful koha/donation.
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