Tom Burke, Anna Chancellor, Owen Teale
There’s a certain feeling of distance inherent when viewing August Strindberg’s play Creditors, a play that dates back to the late nineteenth century, a time when writers like Strindberg and Ibsen were as fascinated as Freud was with dreams and the unconscious.
Focusing on a free-spirited married woman, Tekla, who finds herself manipulated by both her current husband Adolph, a painter, and her ex-husband Gustav, a traveling lecturer who’s wormed his way into the cracks of their splintering marriage, it’s tempting to think of Creditors, which is here seen in a crisp, agile adaptation by Scottish playwright David Greig, as a period piece.
It’s telling that, when Tekla exclaims “I feel like you’re trying to steal my soul,” her ex-husband retorts, “There is no soul,” a line that elicits a ripple of laughter amongst a knowing audience prepared for psychological quips of this sort. The primary power struggle within the play is a subconscious war between the sexes. While the men discuss Tekla, each scheming up his own way to maintain control over her, it is she who ultimately induces them, particularly her husband, to fear her.
Though Strindberg is often deemed a misogynist by his critics (it’s fitting that the play ends with the remark “Poor woman”), an audience is thankfully left to decide who really incites the culminating events of the play (which, even today, should come as a surprise to an audience). Directed with clarity by Alan Rickman, the production’s three actors, for the most part, plumb Strindberg’s text for optimal psychological effect. Anna Chancellor in particular excels in portraying Tekla as a petulant, immature woman, bounding about the stage with an energy that propels the play through occasional sluggish points.
Tom Burke is similarly engaging as Adolph, buckling under the weight of his weak legs just as he buckles under the weight of his insufferable weakness for women, but Owen Teale, while still occasionally effective, disrupts the equilibrium of the play by paying shoddy attention to the ebbs and flows of the dialogue Strindberg, and, in effect, Greig, has crafted for him, maintaining a dry presence that weighs down the early exposition of the play when things should be off to a running start.
Clean wood-plank scenic design by Ben Stones sets up the lakeside resort setting amiably, leaving plenty of room for lighting designer Howard Harrison to fill the space with light and shadow. As with a number of other Donmar Warehouse productions (this staging of Creditors originated there in late 2008 in London), there’s an attention to detail in the physicality of the production that’s to be admired.
Despite the exemplary efforts of the cast as a whole and a top-notch production, however, there’s something not quite all there about Creditors as a play. There’s a certain truth to the gender war represented by the play, but we live in a very different time, where such dusty discussions are oftentimes the subject more of dismissive laughter than of serious consideration. The characters in Strindberg’s drama feel more like archetypes – or even, during the play’s weaker moments, mouthpieces – than flesh-and-blood characters. And though it’s surprising how much humor director Rickman manages to wring from Strindberg’s script, it’s telling that a modern-day audience seems to respond with laughter as a defense mechanism against the more penetrating of the play’s hypotheses about power struggles within relationships.
I suspect that early stagings of the play were still funny and effective as a whole, but it’s hard to imagine that audiences haven’t in many ways inured themselves to the kind of psychodrama Creditors (and other plays of the time, like Ibsen’s The Master Builder) represents. There’s a place for these kinds of plays in the modern repertoire – they’re certainly interesting to watch and contain a number of inherent truths – but it’s hard, when viewing the play through modern eyes, to surmount the ways in which new modes of thinking have shifted how we look at theatre and naturalistic character development.