Who is coming to collect their dues in Creditors? Could it be the playwright August Strindberg, the modernist master of Swedish theatre?
Inside a hotel parlour, artist Adolph (Kevin C. Olohan) sculpts the figure of a woman in clay while simultaneously trying to put shape on his wife: the enigmatic novelist and socialite Tekla (Susan Bracken). Talking to his confidante Gustav (Ronan Leahy), he draws the image of a woman inconsistent in her remarks, jealous of his social life, even preying on his insecurities. “She was fully formed when she first met me”, he offers pathetically. “She stopped growing”, Gustav replies.
The back-and-forth is intriguing in director Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s studied staging of this adaptation by David Greig, produced by the C Company. Gustav’s cringey coaching (“Husband your masculinity”) is heavily influential in Leahy’s charming and sly turn. On the other hand, Adolph, ruminating on a rumour that Tekla’s latest literary success was in fact a damning portrait of her ex-husband, begins to suspect a parasitic relationship wherein his wife is using him as a reservoir for her own creative ends. Olohan digs deep in his portrayal of an artist devastated by the collapse of his devices to represent the world; painting can only be inauthentic, we’re told, and sculpture is antiquated and hollowed out by repetition. What hope has theatre?
As a believable reality begins to skew (notice how Adolph, despite being aware of Gustav’s provocations, keeps saying “I might as well tell you everything”), the potential for Strindberg’s tragicomedy comes to light. First produced in 1889, this play precedes a phantasmagorical phase wherein the playwright, in a bout of mysticism and alchemy, laid the groundwork for twentieth century theatrical expressionism. Creditors already confounds classical conventions (best of luck trying to identify a protagonist) but you’d suspect this production is trying to tap the energy of those later works.
The action is played on the chessboard-floor of Cait Corkery’s sophisticated set where bodies move thoughtfully and strategically under Spillane-Hinks’s fine control. Upstage, typically a place for triumphant winners to be seen and losers to be discarded to a poor position downstage, is used to bring the heartbroken into focus. Meanwhile, Adolph’s empty paintings hang on the back wall of the set, reminding us of the production’s mission to readily rebel against realism.
The cherry on top is Bracken’s smartly restrained performance as Tekla, drifting into proceedings, barely emotive yet not quite abstract. To make Tekla untouchable, in a sense, feels righteous considering the misogynistic fingerprints on the play (there are several references that demote women as men’s property). It’s also a suggestion nudged on by Greig in a line that wasn’t in Strindberg’s original. When Adolph showcases his sculpture, he contends: “She doesn’t need a face. Her beauty is her form”.
What are we to make, then, of Tekla’s odd and reserved response to a catastrophe in the play’s final moments? “She must have loved him too” utters another character. But by refusing to spill with emotion, she’s also ignoring any responsibility thrust on her. That emphasises the cruel and deluded machinations of the male psyche, in a play that still has shattering effect.
Creditors is on at The New Theatre, Dublin until 6th February 2016. Click here for tickets.