Saturday, 12 September 2015

Theatre review: Creditors

Strindberg's Creditors is about Adolph and Tekla, a husband and wife with some cracks in their relationship that are exploited by a malevolent stranger, Gustav. The immediately obvious high concept in the new production by Rikki Henry - winner of this year's Genesis Award - is to turn it into the story of a gay marriage. Adolph (Tom Rhys Harries) is an acclaimed young artist, married to Tekla (Jolyon Coy,) a novelist a few years older than him, who's been married and divorced before. They're spending some time on a hotel on an island when Tekla needs to go away for a few days on business. In his absence Adolph meets another guest, Gustav (Gyuri Sarossy,) who for reasons that will become apparent is determined to sabotage their marriage. By the time we meet them at the start of the play, he's managed to expose Adolph's biggest insecurities about his relationship.

These include the fact that the more sexually confident Tekla still openly flirts with other men, a habit Adolph's Iago-like new friend quickly convinces him means he's cheating.

But first and foremost is his feeling that being married to an older and more experienced man makes him the junior partner in the relationship. Rhys Harries plays Adolph as hopelessly naïve, and the opening scene - each of the three scenes is a confrontation between a different pairing of the actors - sees him fall for Gustav's accusation that Tekla is undermining his confidence, even as that's exactly what Gustav is doing to him. But the Othello parallels only go so far, because when the couple are reunited it's obvious there is some truth to the accusations - Tekla's flirting is most likely innocent, at least for now, but he undeniably does use the age difference to pull rank on his husband, even rather creepily calling him "Little Brother."

Henry directs the three conversations naturalistically, but frames them in an expressionistic setting: Petra Hjortsberg's set design is the most solid I've seen in the usually minimalist Clare studio, the actors on a raised platform surrounded by dyed dark blue water; between the scenes, Henry interposes movement sequences in which the actors wade through the water, or Adolph destroys his painting of Tekla. It does help build up the overall sinister tone of the piece, although it also means a vital plot point involving an overheard conversation isn't very clear, since the third actor has been hanging around in the background most of the time anyway. And Hjortsberg does go a bit overboard in showing us just how *fabulous* Tekla's dress sense is - I think we would have got the point without the cravat.

The production uses David Greig's translation, originally written for Alan Rickman's period production at the Donmar; apart from the personal pronouns it hasn't been changed much, which occasionally jars with the vaguely modern setting: There's not much you can do about Adolph carrying Tekla's photo in his wallet rather than on his phone as it's a major plot point, but however childlike Adolph is, it does seem implausible that Gustav could convince him that unless he stops having sex with his husband he'll be committed to the "epilepsy clinic." These niggles do come up, particularly in the first two scenes where the arguments and character assassinations go on a bit too long. But Creditors ends intensely when Coy and Sarossy's characters finally confront each other and the full extent of what's been going on unravels. Strindberg's play is very much wrapped up in the different social expectations of the sexes, so changing Tekla's gender makes for a bold reinterpretation that doesn't always work, but is interestingly enough presented and powerfully enough acted that by the end more of the production succeeds than doesn't.

Creditors by August Strindberg in a version by David Greig is booking until the 19th of September at the Young Vic's Clare (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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