FringeReview UK 2019
Coupled with Miss Julie, also from 1888, Creditors transfers to Jermyn Street Theatre in the acclaimed Theatre by the Lake. Directed by Tom Littler, designed by Louie Whitemore, lit by Johanna Town with sound and composition by Max Pappenheim.
‘All this is down to you’ artist now sculptor Adolf tells his eight-day friend Gustaf, having abandoned painting for sculpture under his intellectually commanding mentor. His wife has left him for some literary parties, Adolf complains: ‘I felt I couldn’t move, it was like she’d taken my crutches with her, out of spite!’ Gustaf’s next door. Coincidence.
Injured Adolf’s more experienced wife Tekla must be infantilising him, Gustaf helpfully suggests. Tekla’s on her second marriage. Gustaf lets slip he’s seen Tekla flirting with young men; the same Tekla whom Adolf’s petulantly challenged as ‘an old hag’ who can’t attract men. In her early thirties, Tekla’s anything but.
Creditors was the other great naturalistic play Strindberg long thought his masterpiece. Coupled with Miss Julie, also from 1888, both directed by Tom Littler, it transfers to Jermyn Street Theatre in the acclaimed Theatre by the Lake; and with two of the cast in common. Brenton’s version – worked from Agnes Broomé’s literal translation – is achingly close to Strindberg’s. There’s times when the colloquial speech of now leads to a tiny flinch: ‘meltdown’ late on seems a touch unnecessary, but otherwise nothing distracts from Strindberg’s sinewy directness.
That’s helped by Louie Whitemore’s design with elements common to both plays: a hotel-room anonymously suggests anything from the 1880s through to inter-war; tiny Art-Nouveau decoration peppers a cream suite with two tables, stage left where artist and husband Adolf mostly resides near his crutches, to a central one where Tekla notes a game ominously lacks an owner.
Costumes however are strictly in period, from Tekla’s cerulean blue dress to the bronze waistcoats and braces of the men. It’s a tight set that tantalisingly flirts with the outdoors and jetty Tekla arrives from, with, stage-right, French windows opening to lighting by Johanna Town (changing slowly in real-time with the day) with sound and composition by Max Pappenheim: the seaside full of a rise and fall to subtle music, scored with seagulls. Minor characters are dispensed with, in a departure that others have taken too.
The title: Gustaf’s – what he feels he’s owed, what he feels Adolf’s owed. It’s the language of male ownership, appropriation. Not so far from Miss Julie then.
Like James Sheldon who plays Adolf, Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s also in Miss Julie, and it’s an inspired choice to allow two actors room to explore two relationships which, however turbulent, take.
Here the dynamics are reversed in essentially three scenes: Adolf, Gustaf; Adolf, Tekla; and Tekla, Gustaf with the three only coming together with a long-delayed shock at the end. Myer-Bennett purrs and cajoles, refuses to be addressed other than ‘sister’ and Sheldon’s Adolf as her ‘little brother’. Very quickly Adolf’s lying in her lap, as childed putty to her as he was previously in a bromance duetting with David Sturzaker’s Gustaf. With Gustaf Tekla’s very different again.
Worldly and mutually charmed, Sturzaker and Myer-Bennett circle each other. Gustaf fires off the memory that this very room was their honeymoon suite; he notes how ‘like’ Tekla Adolf’s naked bust of her is. ‘Poor bloke. We stayed in this room, didn’t we?’ To Tekla’s ‘Stop it!’ he commands ‘Look at me.’ ‘I can, if I wish’ she ripostes though Tekla and he look at each other straight away. And they do end kissing. Strindberg’s anxious to show at least one man can sexually subjugate Tekla, but it’s chillingly convincing as well as queasily comic. Poisoning the husband and wife separately to each other, continually harking back to their sophisticated days and flaying hapless Adolf in front of Tekla, Gustaf’s revenge might seem complete. Gustaf though invests in Adolf too.
Nevertheless, he recognizes in Tekla an equal to grapple with, in Adolf a distraction. In the same year another man came for a married woman, in Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea. The two men’s rivalry was symbiotic.
The battle for possession now isn’t a woman but a man. It’s different to Miss Julie where the man fought over is commanding and the women even less free than he. Here a wife and ex-husband battle for supremacy over Tekla’s second husband, though for Gustaf the prize is beating and – it seems here – possessing Tekla herself again, despite her declaring earlier to Adolf that Gustaf and his own professed second-rateness bored her. A Young Vic production of Creditors in 2015 made all three protagonists men, and that can work, though not the modish moat that sent the one lying in water sneezing throughout, drowning all other impressions.
Tekla’s actions are gendered though, in as tortuous as fashion as Gustaf’s claiming to Adolf that her treatment of him leads to epilepsy and worse. It’s those misogynist cracks in psychology that leads to Creditors never being taken as the perfect masterpiece he claimed. Miss Julie is that. Creditors though runs it close, alongside The Father in the dramatist’s first great phase.
Strindberg’s own animus with the ferocious well-matched couple has roots in sympathies for both Gustaf who Svengali’d Tekla to an inch, and – despite himself – for Tekla who grew bored and found herself more creative, even if that creativity’s derided. The fate of dramatist and novelist Victoria Benedictsson hovers over both these plays and Hedda Gabler, and Georg Brandes’ dismissal of Benedictsson close to Gustaf’s of Tekla’s first novel that ‘wrote itself’ (about him, in fact) and endorsing Adolf’s rubbishing her subsequent work. It mustn’t be forgotten either that Strindberg knew more than say Ibsen about painting, because he was a considerable painter himself.
All three performances are exemplary. Myer-Bennett is all sympathy and insinuation, partly because – it’s clear – she loves Adolf, but partly too as she loves him as an infantilised thing. Myer-Bennett deploys a throaty mumsy mezzo as well as a colaratura soprano range of outrage to outrageous fun. It’s quietly mesmerising. Her own feelings for Gustaf are driven by sparring with an adult who now seems by contrast attractive, articulate.
Sturzker’s Gustaf is a stiller figure, realizing his command in containment, alternating with swift decisive movements – as does Myer-Bennett. His register shifts subtly from addressing a man with avuncular crudity, to the intellectual, visceral challenge of Myer-Bennett. Sheldon’s physically hamstrung Adolf is a study in incompleteness: an artist who can be traduced, not fully-formed, someone to persuade to sickness. Sheldon manages miraculously to pull sympathy from this heady petulance.
The abrupt denouement and loaded last line – a revelation to the speaker as well as an invitation to lip-curling dismissal in another production – is like nothing else. Leaving aside the dodgy epilepsy this just might in its sheer dynamic switchbacks and return volleys, be a masterpiece Strindberg deemed, if not his only one. We’re unlikely to see a better production of this still rarely-performed disturber of ourselves.