Owen Teale and Tom Burke in BAM’s production of Strindberg’s ‘The Creditors’ playing at Harvey Theatre (directed by Alan Rickman)
by Sam Juliano
One could rightfully draw parallels between Swedish playwright August Strindberg and filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, as in their work we find high octane and remarkable levels of insight into human nature, mental anguish, and an acute understanding of the feminine psyche. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, in particular, echoed the master dramatist, with it’s naked and no-holds-barred examination of marital discord and deep-rooted issues of domination and manipulation. Yet Strindberg taps into his own failed marriages to inform consideration of these issues with some first-hand experience, and The Creditors ultimately stands as a savage tragicomedy that in actuality is a joke on all three of its participants. Nearing the end of a four week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, the short play is generally regarded as Strindberg’s greatest work (Miss Julie and Comrades push close) and the one with the most pared down, and economical examination of its blackly comic depiction of gender warfare. Hence, the play attracted the attention of Scottish playwright David Grieg, who penned the adaptation from its Scandinavian source, as a taut ninety-minute vehicle that exposed delicate sensibilities, and some volcanic familial confrontations that are incredibly modern. Greig stated in an interview: “It seemed to me it was beautifully structured, funny but also an intense fight between two men and a woman in real time. Strindberg’s a primal, vital, raging spirit. He dosen’t have protective armor. He dosen’t come across as a writer with a conscious mind trying to construct an argument. He can’t stop himself just throwing his unconscious at the stage in all its nakedness.”
Strindberg’s difficulty with his three wives (even going as far as to call one “the vampire”) resulted in many critics pointing to a marked misogyny in his work, though it’s clear in The Creditors, there is a “trio” of complicity, where each character drains the other’s energy levels. Of course, Tekla, the play’s one female character, is more than a caricature, as she’s manipulative and complex, and more than a little contradictory, while at the same time she shows a spirited and charismatic vaneer that supplies the play with some of its humorous underpinnings.
Basically The Creditors concerns a painter, actually the ailing second husband of a novelist, who comes under the spell of a man who knows a great deal about the novelist, since he is her ex-husband. While the woman is away on a trip, Gustav, her incognito former spouse, achieves a mesmeric hold on Adolph, the present husband, in the seaside hotel where all three just happen to be staying at. Teale’s manner here is to madden rather than to cure his patient. He prods the invalid to surrender his crutches, so he can be amused while watching him totter, and the manipulated Adolph is led to accept the proposition by Gustav that he will have to forswear sex, because the wife’s demands are driving him to epilepsy. Adolph is seen here as a whimpering, bullied masochist, who is ineluctably drawn to what he does not want to hear, and is excrutiated by his tormentor.
The play’s apt title suggests that we all have a balance due, whether it be money, favors, forgiveness or apologies, and we all must pay the piper, even if it’s ourselves we need to make reparations to. At one point the “creditors” will arrive to collect. The central themes of vulnerability, truth and confession are suggested in a neutral set design (by Ben Stone) that is bereft of color or character. It’s a neatly transcribed hotel room with slatty windows and an outer balcony overlooking the sea, that serves as a tranquil counterpoint to the interior dramatic turbulence. At the beginning, Gustav is seen winding up the blinds on the slanting overhead windows that shed a chalky white light on the seemingly bleached hotel room. Director Allan Rickman wisely subdues potential ‘distractions’ by focusing his magnifying glass on the three characters, who truth be told, could have been cast in Samuel Beckett with similar results. But it’s still clear from the outset, that this hotel-by-the-sea location is no vacation respite.
The play’s three performances are in their own way, electrifying. As Adolph, Tom Burke is dressed down to the point where’s he lost his self esteem, and he’s both painful and fascinating to watch. The excellently calculating and troubled Owen Teale is a torrent of aggression, one who holds a mesmeric hold on his subject. And then there’s Anna Chancellor’s high-handed Tekla, whose domination is a feast for the eyes and ears, a character whose inner machinations are negotiated here in an altogether ferocious performance.
Noted for its thematic clarity and unusual brevity, The Creditors may well have more modern-day relevence than the time it was set and written in, well over a hundred years ago. By revealing the deep-rooted psychological issues it’s protagonists must face in any culture at any time, it’s likely that damage-control will be all that more difficult. The Creditors is one powerful drama, and this production is a stunner in every sense of the word.
Note: I saw ‘The Creditors’ on Thursday, May 6th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s ‘Harvey Theatre’ all by my lonesome. I endured some hellish traffic in downtown Manhattan crossing over to the Brooklyn Bridge, but luckily found parking almost immediately. I secured an excellent seat in the orchestra, which greatly enhanced my ability to decipher this brilliant stage work.