Swedish torment

The uncomfortable start of August Strindberg’s 1888 tragicomedy, Creditors, brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music by London’s Donmar Warehouse, probably has less to do with the new version by David Grieg than with Strindberg’s personal distaste for women’s rights. The playwright’s vehement attack on free-thinking women in this rarely produced drama produces some unintentioned laughter in the first quarter hour—mingled, to be sure, with the genuine humor he invests in the grim proceedings—before it settles into a fluctuating power struggle. Two men enter the lounge of a summer hotel. Adolph (Tom Burke), a painter turned sculptor, walks shakily and carries crutches. He is unburdening himself to Gustav, a middle-aged stranger he’s met at the hotel (designed sparely by Ben Stones all in white, reminiscent of Syrie Maugham’s décor, with some yellowing on the clapboard walls added for naturalism and only a whisper of dove-gray stripes on the cushions of the wood-framed furniture).

Adolph is suffering pangs of uncertainty about his wife, Tekla (Anna Chancellor), who has been away for a week. “My wife is a very independent woman,” he tells Gustav, who elicits descriptions of Tekla’s possessiveness and her jealousy at Adolph’s forming friendships. At parties, he says, Tekla’s hackles are raised if he talks with other men, “as if she wanted to keep me all to herself.” Strindberg’s portrait of Adolph as a man in an emotionally abusive relationship rings with truth. “When she smiles, I smile,” he says. “When she cries, I cry. Even when she gave birth—can you believe this—I actually felt the pain of her contractions.” It's telling that, as she has assumed the dominant role long reserved for the husband, he has become feminized.

Tekla, says Adolph, contains “the very essence of my being—harboring my life force.” Moreover, Tekla is a renowned novelist, whose initial successful book was drawn from her relationship to her first husband. But Adolph nurtured and trained Tekla, who was an abysmal writer, and helped her to her triumph. Like a parasite, she has leeched everything from him, including his ability to paint and, now, his confidence in her fidelity.

Gustav (Owen Teale) warns Adolph that the only way to regain his manhood is total sexual abstinence for a year; he also claims that Adolph may come down with epilepsy if he doesn’t cease intercourse (another laughable moment). Gustav, moreover, does some far-fetched psychologizing about Tekla’s previous husband, whose ghost haunts Adolph and Tekla’s relationship like a “creditor knocking at the bedroom door,” since it’s that relationship that really formed Tekla.

Adolph is persuaded by Gustav to thrash out his problems with Tekla, who is on a ferry to the resort as they speak. Gustav arranges to eavesdrop on the confrontation, and then to face down Tekla while Adolph listens behind the doors to the corridor.

In the next two scenes that’s exactly what happens; the drama deepens, and the stakes become higher. Adolph, in attempting to seize control of his marriage and make his wife subservient, endangers it. And when Adolph leaves and Gustav enters, Tekla is in for a shock. Strindberg ultimately suggests the ruin of both men is the outcome of the social emancipation of women.

Rickman’s fine production is suffused with dread, anguish, and emotional tension, helped by Adam Cork’s rich sound design—dripping water, ferry horns, distant doors opening and closing, and faraway footsteps drawing near (akin to the climax of Rear Window). Howard Harrison adds to the atmosphere with dwindling daylight and lengthening shadows from three large skylight windows on the pitched roof.

The actors are all superb. Chancellor’s Tekla doesn’t appear so unreasonable or horrific as she’s described. She’s a lively, loving woman with an independent streak and a smothering maternal quality, yet there’s no denying her destructiveness. As Adolph, Burke founders between adoration and agony, and he presents Adolph’s physical pain with subtle gestures, such as absent-mindedly massaging his thighs. Teale’s Gustav is stiff, authoritative, and quick-witted, gently feeding Adolph enough rope to hang himself; he segues smoothly from borderline charlatan to merciless avenger. It’s a credit to the Donmar Warehouse that this thorny period piece can still deliver so much food for thought.

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