Actor Alan Rickman’s staging of playwright David Greig’s adaptation of Creditors is striking for the way that it both softens the edges of and preserves the problematic acidity of August Strindberg’s original piece. Creditors is probably one of Strindberg’s most complex one-acts, a stinging tragicomedy that is every bit as troubling in its philosophy as it is remarkable for the inventiveness and ferocity of its convictions. This is largely because Strindberg’s plays are notoriously never truly sympathetic toward their female protagonists and Creditors is in large part about an individual woman’s role in a failed marriage. Exciting and engaging as a drama, yes, but also deeply troubling.
A large part of what makes Strindberg’s plays from this period (roughly 1887 to 1889, the short but definitive years when he dabbled with “naturalism”) so problematic is that they are not simply concerned with the elusive human condition, but rather in relating and enforcing the moral code that governs it. Inspired by Zola’s writing, the “naturalistic” philosophy that Strindberg subscribed to when he wrote Creditors emphasizes a concept of human nature that’s almost entirely divorced of a theological imperative. As no one governs his protagonists’ actions, men and women (but let’s face it, mostly women) that do not uphold their responsibilities to another and are not mindful of how to hold their worst behavior in check are, to use the work’s prevailing metaphor, accountable for their transgressions. As such, Tekla, played by a striking Anna Chancellor, is essentially a self-serving vampire and is described as such by both her ailing husband Adolf (Tom Burke) and Gustav (Owen Teale), his friend, along with other choice epithets like “snake” and “cannibal.”
Greig’s adaptation, a 90-minute one-act, begins with an urgent exchange of such muddled metaphors which are mostly chewed over and spat out by Adolf, who has exhausted himself in his devotion to a woman that saps his creative and sexual energy and still thirsts for much more; Gustav spends most of his time in the play’s first half directing Adolf’s insecurities, a pivotal subordination in the play’s sexual hierarchy. The comedy in Creditors is thus rather grim and, at best, fleeting considering that the audience is expected to laugh at some of Adolf’s fractured lamentations and also sympathize with him and even recognize the intrinsic harsh truths of his ravings.
Creditors starts with Adolf and Gustav exchanging their ideas about Adolf’s recent illness, a sickness that is itself symptomatic of the failure of his relationship with Tekla. That unhappiness is one that Adolf has not yet fully realized. Adolf is entirely reliant on the wiley Gustav, who in Greig’s version resembles a strident hypnotist, to reveal what’s wrong with him, and by extension his relationship with Tekla (it’s telling that Adolf lies to Tekla later on and says that he wasn’t gossiping about her while she was out with a friend, but rather consulting with a doctor). Being a sick man, Adolf is set upon by Gustav, who clearly has his own motives, for the sake of insidious truths about his relationship with Tekla that are veiled only by their seeming innocence.
The logic undergirding much of what Gustav describes and Adolf readily confirms about Tekla’s flaws may seem intentionally faulty and motivated by the most poisonous kind of jealousy. But for the most part, it’s fairly accurate. Just as the men say, Tekla treats Adolf like dirt, dismisses his opinions to his face, then brazenly adopts them as her own without acknowledging who they came from, actively seeks the attention of other men (“Women don’t get along with other women”), and treats Adolf more like a lover and/or a younger brother than a husband. “You’re a devil,” Adolf moans shortly after she returns to his sickroom and immediately sets upon him, smothering him in her disingenuous affection. While Adolf has no spine or individual voice of his own to speak of by the time the viewer is introduced to him, Tekla has no face: A sculpture Adolf is working on of her leaves her visage blank, ostensibly because she hasn’t had time to take the last ounces of strength from him to form a complete ersatz identity.
Even after that laundry list of demonic traits, the most amazing thing about Tekla is that she confirms these wild accusations once she finally comes on stage in her indifference, her willfulness, and her refusal to blush. She’s essentially a proto-feminist as imagined by a man who values institutional obligations over material happiness (in Grieg’s version, when she cries out, “Stop telling me what I think,” Adolf wearily dismisses her: “Please, let’s not argue”).
While Tekla is surely a vile thing (at least, within the play’s logic) and a thoroughly dishonest creature that thrives on flattery and the vitality of her coterie of male companions, she is, in Greig’s adaptation, less aggressively malicious in her intentions, though only to a point. In the play’s elongated final two thirds, Tekla’s motivation as a creature of “natural” instinct is more thoroughly unpacked than in Strindberg’s original script. The viewer can see more clearly the actions that make her lust for attention, for her to shirk her duties to Adolf and to take ideas and mannerisms piecemeal from her men. Context matters here and, in that sense, Greig’s adaptation is very thoughtful.
While Teale and Burke both make mince meat of their roles, pouring their utmost into truly draining and highly combustible exchanges, it’s Chancellor’s presence that holds the play together. Her fluid performance is winningly vehement and her self-righteous anger sustains the play’s tenuous complexity, especially during the play’s crucial final encounter between Gustav and Tekla. Rickman’s stage direction is dynamic and Ben Stones’s evocative set, which suggests a haunted flophouse by the beach, is equally exceptional, but the performances of the play, Chancellors’s in particular, are what really make Creditors a galvanizing revival.
Creditors is now playing at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street) in Brooklyn and through May 16. Schedule: Tues – Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 3pm. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.