Although it dates from the same year as Miss Julie in 1888, Strindberg’s Creditors is less well known and far less performed. And yet it feels so much more mysteriously modern a play, and in David Greig’s new ninety-minute version – which sounds like a jauntier version of Michael Meyer’s standard translation – the shock value is renewed and new minted.
The perfect chamber play, Creditors fulfilled Strindberg’s requirement for his own Intimate Theatre with the blistering intensity of its study in consuming passion. Gustav (Owen Teale), a philosopher scientist, tells the artist Adolph (Tom Burke) that he must abandon his wife, the novelist Tekla (Anna Chancellor). We realise that Gustav was formerly married to Tekla himself and cannot move on without laying waste around him. His tactics of psychological terrorism are deeply disturbing.
Schematically conceived in three riveting scenes, Alan Rickman’s white hot production never slackens its grip for a minute. Teale opens his campaign by slowly winding up the shutters on Ben Stones’s scrubbed, bleached hotel room, and poor old Adolph is a goner. He is crippled from an accident. His sculpture of a reclining nude (a frank representation of Tekla) is a symptom of being too much in love, and a cause of his epilepsy.
When Tekla arrives – beautifully attired in grey and aquamarine silk, a vision of predatory elegance – she becomes an everywoman figure of sexual insatiability. Chancellor reins in this extreme, representative aspect of the character within a performance of stunning sensuality, racing towards the final jealousy-fuelled bonfire of their amities. Strindberg’s image for the two men is that of a wolf stalking a helpless lamb. Here, Tekla is the vixen and the vulture all at once.
Teale plays with a controlled iciness that releases the character’s warped ferocity with frightening savagery, while Burke’s poor Adolph writhes and moans in a beautifully varied account of his own emotional dependency and helplessness. The play is a puzzle to some extent, with Gustav a psychic voyager of no fixed abode, and Strindberg’s Pirandellian touch of two passing ladies with their luggage is sadly cut (presumably for economic reasons); it should not have been.
Overall, though, this is yet another Donmar triumph; the phrase is over-worn but unavoidable. For two nights running Fotini Dimou has provided wonderful costumes for a play with an earring in it, and the lights and sound of Howard Harrison and Adam Cork are works of art in themselves.