Creditors @ Donmar Warehouse, London

cast list
Anna Chancellor
Owen Teale
Tom Burke

directed by
Alan Rickman
Written just after his much better-known work Miss Julie in 1888, Strindberg’s Creditors is a remarkably modern psychological dissection of male/female relations.

In the way that love and hate are shown to be so closely linked in the battle of the sexes, the play foreshadows the likes of Look Back in Anger and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not to mention Bergman’s films. With only a few shafts of barbed humour interrupting the unremitting sexual power struggle, Creditors makes compelling if uncomfortable viewing.

David Greig’s stripped-down new version is played out over 90 minutes without an interval in Alan Rickman’s claustrophobically intense production, so that we are gripped in horrified fascination at the way men and women can tear each other apart. Strindberg pierces the veneer of civilization to penetrate our atavistic nature. The play may be influenced by the author’s tempestuous on-off first marriage, but the protagonists are archetypes rather than individuals, so that their fate takes on an almost mythic quality.

Each of the three acts features two of the characters in turn, before the shocking denouement brings all three together. In the first act, Adolphe, an emotionally crippled artist who is using crutches after a physical breakdown, confides his deepest fears and anxieties about his marriage to Gustav, a man he has just met in a Swedish sea resort hotel, while he is waiting for his novelist wife Tekla to return from a trip. At first Gustav seems to be acting as a psychiatric counsellor but his motives remain ambiguous.

In the second act, we see husband and wife locked in a passionate embrace, a mixture of love-making and fighting, where the games they play have a deadly serious flipside, as the assertive Tekla tries to alternately comfort, seduce, bully and threaten the jealously submissive Adolphe to maintain her dominance. The final act reveals (what we already suspect) that Gustav is Tekla’s spurned first husband, ridiculed in her bestselling autobiographical novel and now bent on revenge.

The Donmar studio space is the perfect venue for this psychodrama to get under the skin, exactly the sort of place Strindberg’s was thinking of with his idea of ‘Intimate Theatre’. Ben Stones’s design of white walls, floors and furniture, with a few illuminating rays of cold light coming though skylights, is reminiscent of a mental hospital, while water below the raised stage suggests a coastal location on the edge of solid land where there are no certainties to cling to.

The cast are excellent. Tom Burke’s Adolphe is a tortured soul, racked with doubt about his role as an artist and as a man in thrall to his much stronger wife. Anna Chancellor exudes confident sensuality as Tekla, an independent-minded woman who wants to break free of the restrictions placed on her sex by social convention. Owen Teale’s Gustav is apparently a coldly calculating academic whose ruthless destructiveness betrays a white-hot fury. All do a fine job of representing the specimens under the microscopic scrutiny of Strindberg’s laboratory of the human psyche.

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