Strindberg’s claustrophobic tragicomedy is given a contemporary overhaul by Neil Smith in this Kickstarted production by Living Record at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. The company’s director, Ross Drury, and producer, Jill Rutland, are long term collaborators. Often seen as Strindberg’s most mature work, 90 minutes is all he needs to utterly wrench apart a marriage.
Creditors begins right in the middle of things, as Gustav (Paul Trussell) doles out advice to a young artist who is working on a sculpture of his wife, while she is away on a publicity tour for her popular vamp-fiction. They are the sole guests in the city hotel. The artist, Adolph, is played by Tice Oakfield as mewing, petty, full of childish energy and profoundly unstable. We discover Gustav has convinced Adolph to turn from painting to sculpture, and much else besides.
The leading idea in Smith’s adaptation is that the tragic ménage à trois is set amidst a banking crisis, with riots and debts forming a heated context to the microcosmic tensions between the three characters. Apart from some sound design – crowds jeering outside – and the odd reference to Gustav’s clients, this context felt obscure. Without the strong marketing line, it would have been almost unimpenetrable.
The stage design by Leah Sams featured shards – a plant pot and a lamp shade created with shards of mirror glass; splinters of white paint decorating the back wall. I thought there might be some symbolic meaning to all this, especially since the set seemed much more like a bed-sit than a hotel, with a duvet and sofa cushions strewn on the floor. But there wasn’t. Apart from the rather spiky relationships.
The duvet space – which Adolph lounges on childishly, but Tekla (Rachel Heaton) looks awkward posing on – makes the room seem like a private one. Until, that is, we find out in the third act that Adolph and Tekla’s hotel room is elsewhere. If you know your Strindberg, you’ll know the play is set in the semi-public hotel lounge.
Gustav, who for a while we think could be a stranger meddling in Adolph’s artistic career and marriage, seems like an odd intruder if we assume Adolph is sculpting in private rooms. The fault may be in Gustav’s characterisation. Never realised as a friendly advisor to Adolph, Gustav from the opening scene is conniving and untrustworthy – so much so that it seems bemusing that Adolph ever trusted him at all.
The tense arguments between husband and wife fare much better than the opening act. Tekla enters late in the play, returning from glamorous events with film-types. Heaton is persuasive and fiendishly beguiling in the role, sexually articulating her manipulation of Adolph.
The modernisation feels clunky and never deeply rooted into the translation of the text. But the issue this production really faces is the dynamic between Gustav and Adolph, which never manages to fully ignite.
Creditors is playing at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 11 April. For more information and tickets, see the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.