by August Strindberg
in a new version by David Greir
Directed by Alan Rickman
The Donmar Warehouse, Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC
With Tom Burke – Adolph
Owen Teale – Gustav
Anna Chancellor – Tekla
Strindberg’s Creditors is a turbulent study of marriage as hell. Relationships turn vile, and contemptuous lovers hurl sarcastic barbs and accusations at one another like poisoned arrows. The fragile foundations of love crack under pressure and allegiances turn and return and turn again. The new production of this ferocious three-hander, directed by Alan Rickman, is a smart, if heavy-handed, barrage of recriminations and abuse. Insight and authentic emotion are buried beneath the avalanche of cynicism, but Creditors invigorates with its hard-boiled sexual politics and crisp articulations of hate.
While awaiting his new wife at a seaside sanatorium, a young sculptor confesses his insecurities to a concerned stranger, whose savage advice systematically undercuts the trust between the newlyweds. A paternal figure purporting to comfort and mentor the delicate young man, the stranger exploits every weakness and annihilates the relationship. Of course, the marriage is no fortress to begin with. The poor groom is so emasculated that he limps and quakes with anxiety, and thinks that his wife’s condescending pet name for him, “Little Brother”, is an innocent term of endearment. But torn between his wife’s belittlement and the older man’s increasingly aggressive arguments, he struggles to safeguard whatever pure shred of happiness remains within. “I have the woman I want,” he says with disarming sincerity. “I’ve never wanted anyone else.” This kind of passion is a two-sided coin, and while Strindberg allows for a counterpoint of affection and warmth to his deluge of cruelty, this production’s single-minded pursuit of a cutthroat and sterile aesthetic feels lopsided. This halfway approach isn’t helped by the fact that Strindberg’s characters are pieces in a game in which power mathematically shifts and flows between the tortured lover, the ruthless villain, and the vulnerable temptress. It’s a story of betrayal and seduction as elemental as the one about the snake in the Garden of Eden.
What lifts the production out of the realm of highbrow melodrama is the precise and sophisticated translation by David Greig, which is nothing short of brilliant. Its hyper-articulate vocabulary of harsh logic and hostility allows the characters to wield words skillfully rather than brandish them. There are some ill-fitting witticisms that are more Wilde than Strindberg, and the play’s attempts to dip into farce are pretty embarrassing. But there are glimmers of delicious satire that skewer the shallowness and insecurity of artists/intellectuals, like when the young man posits that “painting is an inferior art form to autobiographical prose fiction” and the woman parrots that there is no soul, evidently a hip sentiment of the day.
Mostly, the rapid-fire dialogue is a dialectic banquet. So it’s too bad that the acting style is so blunt. The actors relish the rhythm and richness of the language, but their expressions of emotion are obtuse. I glanced at my watch a handful of times during the 90-minute production when the play devolved into just a bunch of yelling. In their attempts to keep momentum, the trio looked and sounded smashing (especially in the stylish unadorned off-white hotel room set by Ben Stones and tasteful period costumes by Fotini Dimou) but made nuance unintelligible, and turned a potentially intricate psychological drama into a hysterical horror show. This is more limiting than exciting, though I guess a brisk scream-fest is preferable to the depressing bore this could’ve been at the hands of a less populist director.
The cast certainly makes up in power for what they withhold in specificity. Owen Teale, as Gustav the older deviant with an ulterior motive, is a relentless bully and expert manipulator who administers cruelty without missing a beat – towards the end, he incants like some kind of evil sorcerer. His threatening gaze easily overpowers the sensitive Adolph, the artist played by Tom Burke, who is refreshingly earnest and lucid but later gets caught up in histrionics and overplays the anguished sycophant. Strindberg deals with Adolph somewhat abstractly – as scandalous revelations accumulate, he goes into a hypnotic state of shock. Anna Chancellor, as the brazen Tekla, is mysterious but not really – she is equal parts daft bride and spiteful coquette. Those may be conflicting qualities, but they don’t make Tekla particularly alluring – we have to take Adolph’s infatuation at his word. She is likable in her first scene, though, when all she wants to do is seduce her own husband. He refuses in a lame attempt to gain the upper hand.
These characters may not be subtle but at least they’re warm-blooded, which makes Creditors a literate exploration of explosive tempers and embattled egos. Somewhere between a gripping, insightful portrayal of base selfishness in relationships and a blatant, overwrought faux tragedy in an elegant frame, Creditors will make you feel better about every half-decent relationship you’ve ever had as you take the subway train back uptown.