Writer: August Strindberg
Adaptor: Howard Brenton
Direction: Tom Littler
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Classic theatre loves to punish bad women, particularly if she’s adulterous or dares to be, in that dirty phrase, a “free-thinker”. August Strindberg’s Creditors first performed in 1889 and written a year earlier is a play entirely dedicated to the manipulation of an errant wife, forced to confront the error of her ways and, through tragedy, to have her spirit broken. Yet, Howard Brenton’s new adaptation premiering at the Jermyn Street Theatre still makes a solid case for the continued value of Creditors as an exploration of love and obsession.
Set in the communal room of a small seaside hotel, Adolf and Gustav are deep in conversation about the ambiguous influence of Adolf’s wife Tekla, someone he seems to loathe and desire in equal measure. A man weakened by self-doubt and bemoaning the hold Tekla has over him, artist Adolf is charmed by Gustav who encourages his new friend to refuse his wife in the hope that she’ll forego her young lovers and learn to be an obedient partner.
Tom Littler’s new production, playing in repertory with a revival of his Miss Julie from 2017, is a stylish and periodically intense examination of marital relationships in a period where female subjugation was still very much the norm. The creation of a character like Tekla whose moral dubiety, lustful nature and callousness are openly displayed in the play still feels fresh, while the eroding effect of her behaviour on Adolf and to a certain extent Gustav is clarified by Brenton’s text.
During the long opening duologue between the two men – the best section of Littler’s production – Gustav psychoanalyses his companion, subtly drawing-out the fears, concerns and emotions that imply almost a traditionally female-concept of hysteria in Adolf while revealing almost nothing about Gustav in return. Performed with intensity by James Sheldon and David Sturzaker, the conversation implies much about these different men and nicely builds the ground-work for the revelations to come.
But having spoken in such heightened terms about Tekla, her eventual appearance feels somewhat diluted. Dorothea Myer-Bennett captures her sense of superiority over her husband, and her ability to manipulate his thoughts and actions, but with limited chemistry between them it’s difficult to believe they are as affected by each other as the drama implies. Myer-Bennett’s later scene with Sturzaker’s Gustav is much more successful, creating an intensity in which both believe they’re setting a trap for the other.
Sturzaker is particularly good, and for much of the play it remains unclear how truthful his Gustav has been about his real identity. There is an easy charm that lures Adolf to confess all, which he later uses on Tekla to great effect and the switch Sturzaker makes to avenger is rapid and shocking as it needs to be. Sheldon’s Adolf has more to say but as a character develops far less, yet Sheldon captures well the innocence of the artist sacrificing himself to a feeling he cannot control, and the physical and mental health costs are interestingly conveyed.
Louie Whitemore’s Scandinavian-inspired set is clean, light and, reflecting the themes of the production, creates just the right balance between comfort and isolation. Littler’s revival of Creditors is full of well-managed conversations, but its heroine is never quite bad enough or empathetic enough to convince the audience of her devastating allure or why she deserves to be punished for it.
Runs until 1 June 2019 | Image: Robert Day