Powered by bold performances and clever design, Stewart Laing’s colourful, clean-lined production injects an undercurrent of acerbic irony into Strindberg’s little-performed exploration of marital breakdown. It’s not enough, however, to either escape or confront the play’s inherent and wearying misogyny.
The setting is a make-or-break holiday weekend. Young artist Adolph is holidaying with his older, free-spirited wife Tekla at an isolated and idyllic coastal resort. Confronted by a sympathetic stranger, Adolph begins to confide his worry that Tekla is bored of him, and confess how he is haunted by the psychological ghost of her ex-husband. Together, the two men hatch a plan to unveil Tekla’s true feelings for the men in her life. Upon the woman’s return, though, it’s revealed that this stranger is not who he first appeared, and that his interest in the couple’s relationship may not be so altruistic after all.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Laing’s production, not the least of which is the triptych of excellent central performances. Edward Franklin as Adolph is a tousle-haired male-in-crisis, a blustering, likeable yet devastatingly weak-willed youth who cultivates the audience’s sympathy. Opposite him, Stuart McQuarrie’s unflappable and deadpan stranger, Gustav, is the titular creditor searching for his dues, a modern-day Iago whose true colours are not revealed until the plays’ final denouement. As Tekla—the object of each man’s ire and affection— Adura Onashile is bold and vivacious, taking every chance to shine in the play’s final third as the cameras hidden around Laing’s set hone in on a subtle and emotional performance.
Laing’s design (brought to life with lighting by Aedin Cosgrove and video by Anna Chaney) is an unsettlingly sedate paradise of colourful cabins and dreamlike vistas, walls of illusory depth and twisted pathways that lead nowhere – a great metaphor for the idealised expectations and emotions soon to be warped by the three protagonists. Pippa Murphy’s chilled, synthy soundtrack underscores an atmosphere of hot summer day threatening thunderstorms.
Adding an enjoyable splash of surrealism, each of the play’s four duologues are punctuated by the appearance of a pack of old-fashioned and well-kept Girl Guides (played ably by four of the Lyceum’s Creative Learning Participants), orienteering their way through this beachside idyll and the emotional haziness of the adults – a winking reminder of how easy it can be to traverse rough terrain if you have the right tools: compass, map, honesty, courage. Laing’s signature use of live video adds another layer of unreality in the final quarter of the play, as Gustav meets Tekla inside the couple’s holiday home, their confrontation relayed in claustrophobic, sweaty-palmed close-up to a screen above the stage, while the audience watches Adolph creep around outside, eavesdropping on a marital drama no longer his own.
It’s a bold and engaging production. But despite this, the intrinsic and unchallenged sexism of Creditors robs it of much of its relevance. It’s dispiriting to sit through an hour listening to two men dissecting the motives of an invisible woman, who thereafter only appears onstage to be manipulated and railed against. Tekla, as shown by Onashile’s fine performance in the play’s final quarter, is possibly the most interesting and well-rounded character in the play, but even David Greig’s characteristically bright, energetic adaptation can’t make her an equal to Strindberg’s men. As a 2018 audience, we’re uncomfortably aware that the only female character in this play is painted as a serial heartbreaker, a whore, a leech on her husband’s energies and creative passions, who has no narrative of her own outside of responding to first Adolph’s, then Gustav’s accusations.
Strindberg’s play comes across as angry and childishly misogynistic, and it’s disappointing that neither Laing nor Greig feel compelled to really challenge this. A touch more humour and irony, and Creditors could be a cutting satire of fragile masculinity. Or, go bold and controversial and make it a devastating study of 1920s sexual relations, and how far we’ve come. Instead, despite the heat of summer passion, this Creditors remains intellectually lukewarm.
Creditors is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until May 12th. For more details, click here.