Is it possible to kill someone through psychological manipulation? This is a question that haunted the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and forms the focus of his chamber play Creditors, currently running at the Burton Taylor Studio. In his 1887 essay “Soul Murder”, he wrote that ‘there is nothing so destructive to the thinking process as shattered hopes, and a highly developed form of this torture can induce insanity.’ He deemed this the most ‘modern psychology’, and it is precisely this process that we see played out on the stage in Creditors, written only a year later. The hapless artist Adolph is torn apart by his insecurities, allowing himself to be convinced that his wife is an adulteress. His friend, Gustav, assures him of Tekla’s infidelity, all the while playing on Adolph’s lack of self-belief in his art. This is not only Strindberg’s answer to his contemporary Henrik Ibsen’s earlier play Rosmersholm, which he saw as a dramatisation of “soul murder”, but also to Shakespeare’s Othello, condensing the psychological drama between Iago, Othello, and Desdemona into a ninety-minute play for only three actors.
Director Christopher Write’s opening sentence in the programme is “There’s no escaping Strindberg’s misogyny.” Whilst this is in many cases true, it is misleading as a header for Creditors. This is one of Strindberg’s most nuanced plays, and although there is no denying the chauvinist sentiment of much of the text, this forms only one strand in an exceedingly complex conceptual web. To call Creditors a play about misogyny does it a disservice: here, Strindberg offers a profound insight into vindictiveness and self-doubt, regardless of gender. His characters are superbly intricate, Strindberg writing of them that they are ‘split and vacillating, a mixture of the old and the new … exactly as the human soul is patched together’. No one character gains and retains the audience’s sympathy — Gustav emerges as the most despicable of the three, manipulative and cruel, but Adolph is by turns a wronged man and a spiteful coward, Tekla both vulnerable and flippant.
In capturing the multiplicitous quality of the characters, Byzantium Productions’ staging is something of an understated tour de force. With a pared-back set design in the intimate space of the Burton Taylor theatre, the lens is focused entirely on the interaction between the three. Strindberg envisaged his modern dramas as taking place in an “Intimate Theatre”: small stages which eliminated the void between actors and audience, created atmosphere through lighting effects rather than elaborate stagings, and removed the interval to heighten the intensity of the spectator’s engagement with the play. In this respect, the Burton Taylor is the perfect theatre for Strindberg’s most claustrophobic of scenarios. The ménage à trois between Tekla (Isobel Jesper-Jones), Adolph (Jacob Boswall), and Gustav (Tom Lambert) is cloying — the stage does not have the space to accommodate the three of them comfortably, providing a spatial representation of the emotional dynamic between them.
David Grieg’s English adaptation (previously staged at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008, directed by Alan Rickman) is for the most part excellent, capturing the sardonic humour that ultimately makes Strindberg’s text so tragic. There are still moments where the caustic nature of Strindberg’s observations about gender relations jar slightly, but these are largely subsumed by the biting potency of the psychological profiles that Strindberg’s characters portray. As in Strindberg’s later trilogy Till Damaskus, the on-stage personalities seem to embody aspects of a single mind. They have a circular relationship to each other: Gustav the voice of Adolph’s artistic self-doubt, Adolph the manifestation of Tekla’s erotic insecurities, Tekla the feminine counterpart to Gustav’s machismo. The trio encapsulated this perfectly — none of the duologues outshone the others, and the seamless interplay between the three was kept beautifully balanced. Strindberg believed that there is no such thing as a single, “true” self, but that ’we continually adapt ourselves to people and circumstances, that reality, so varied and shifting, makes us changeable, and that we play along in the comedy of life without knowing it’. Creditors, then, is the ultimate evocation of this “comedy of life”, the identity of each character kaleidoscopic and malleable.
What I particularly loved about this performance is that no matter how dramatic the events unfolding between the two on-stage characters, it was always apparent that the more overwhelming presence was the one currently off-stage. All three actors maintained a calculated composure when on stage, allowing for absence and suggestion to emerge as the true victor in this scenario. Yes, there were minor flaws in the execution — some costumes didn’t fit properly, there were slight continuity errors with Adolph’s walking stick — but ultimately this was an astute and compelling rendition of what Strindberg called his most ‘modern’ drama. The simplicity of the production was its greatest asset, creating an electrifying menace in its unassuming presentation (in contrast to The Father which ran at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year, which relied upon visceral brute force for its impact in a manner that was self-defeating in parts). Contrary to accusations commonly thrown at Strindberg, that he is difficult to stage or that his ideas are outdated, Byzantium Productions have shown that Strindberg can speak eloquently and insightfully to the twenty-first century. One hundred and twenty six years after its first staging, Creditors is still ‘thoroughly modern’.
‘Creditors’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until 9th May; tickets (£6/£5) can be purchased here.