August Strindberg's Creditors, in a new version by David Greig, Donmar, London

  SEPTEMBER 2008  
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The Donmar has, yet again, been transformed with signature neo-realism into a stark, whitewashed Swedish seaside hotel lounge. The date, 1888, the year Strindberg first presented this unusual play, the temporal sister to his more famous Miss Julie. Cast iron radiators, complete with snaking plumbing, attach themselves to pine-panelled walls. Sparse white furniture -- two day beds, an occasional table, a covered trolley and upholstered stool -- are placed with regimented precision on the sand-washed wooden floor. Light streams in from steeply-sloping skylights at the rear of the stage, that pale grey light of the coast forcing its way through practical blinds that rise and fall with the turning of three onstage handles. Double-doors centrally enter the stage, revealing glimpses of an airy windowed hotel corridor and the wistful swaying of net curtains from an offshore breeze.

Ben Stones's evocative set is part hotel, part stereotypical lunatic asylum. The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary by the sound of the drip, drip, dripping of water, and a stage which floats like an ominous island in a black bottomless pool of water. A literal and metaphorical moat exists between us, the audience, and the actors. Their isolation and our own voyeurism are accented by this dark liquid presence.

Into this clinically bleak space come Adolph and Gustav. Adolph appears a sorry wreck of a young man. A tortured soul whose grasp on reality relies on his engagement with art. Adolph has obviously had a career as a painter but now, for whatever reason, he seeks to embrace the life of a sculptor. His latest offering, a provocatively inviting female nude which borders on the pornographic in its self-exposure, is moulded in rough clay on the trolley. A hasty affair, resting on books and utterly incongruous in this clean, clear environment, the sculptured model personifies the anxiety of its creator. The female nude has no face, just a hint of skull and decidedly deathlike in its memorialization of lust.

Adolph appears near to mental collapse. He is assisted in this collapse by Gustav, an arrogant man many years Adolph's senior, and an apparent misogynist of gargantuan proportions. Gustav goads Adolph into relishing his mental anguish, a mental anguish based on jealousy and fear. Although pretending to ‘heal' his patient, Gustav actually nurtures all those anxieties and jealousies, literally grinding his willing victim into the ground. Why should he do this? You must see the play to find that out. Suffice it to say there are several twists and turns in this intricate psychological drama.

Adolph is, unfortunately for him, besotted with his wife Tekla. Unfortunate for him because Tekla is a force to be reckoned with. Her love for her husband is intense -- so intense that she seems to be devouring him whole. Adolph is, however, many years her junior, a factor which adds poignancy to their chosen pet-names of ‘little brother' and ‘big sister'. Tekla has been married before. Tekla has also become a highly successful author, courted by Swedish society and relishing her new-found fame. With fame comes, one presumes, temptation. Certainly Adolph sees the young men who flock to his wife's side as threats to his own marriage.

David Greig's version of Strindberg's obscure play is intelligent and witty. It captures an age and a social class with sympathy and skill. These are people whose hopes and desires are no different from our own. These are people with whom we can, uncomfortably, relate. All of us have, I believe, been obsessed, whether with a person or an object or a passion or an idea. In Creditors these acts of obsession are presented in a non-too-palatable way; its message of ultimate love and hope obscured by a tortured appraisal of human fallibility.

The three actors involved are excellent. Tom Burke plays Adolph's emotional and physical breakdown with complete believability. This is a soul in turmoil, a child in a man's body, and a child desperately seeking the comfort of his maternal sister/wife or the paternal affirmation of his new-found mentor, Gustav.

Gustav, played with a lilting Welsh accent by Owen Teale, is likewise a complete character. Gustav's own ulterior motives are hinted at in moments of danger and impotent passion. His manipulation of Adolph a lesson in psychological warfare on a grand scale.

Anna Chancellor evokes the erotic intensity of Tekla. The sexual prowess, the uncontrollable passion and lust for life and adventure, are beautifully portrayed in Chancellor's performance. Tekla is a whirlwind of life experience, as well as a black hole into which is sucked the life-blood of the men she captures within her grasp.

Alan Rickman has directed this difficult play with great dexterity and insight. He has allowed his actors free range to develop their worlds and, in the process, has released much of the play from late-nineteenth-century obscurity. Creditors has a message which, although occasionally uncomfortable to watch and to hear, is nevertheless every bit as topical as it must have been radical when Strindberg first offered it for the stage. Sex and social realism. A heady mix.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008