Tuesday 16 December 2014

Theatre Review: Creditors, August Strindberg, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, New York City

August Strindberg’s Creditors is a stark, brutal and intensely modern play, first performed in 1889. It’s a play without embellishment and with total focus on its three characters, who play out the plot in a series of intense duologues, ultimately destroying each other. There is Tekla, a successful novelist, her husband Adolph, a young painter, and her former husband Gustav, who gatecrashes the new couple’s life to assert his own power.

It may sound like heavy watching, but it’s also in many ways comedic, from Gustav’s machinations, to the instances of stage eavesdropping. The question at its heart is ‘what does marriage mean?’ and more particularly, ‘has the meaning of marriage changed now divorce and remarriage is a real possibility?’ Strindberg’s script – presented here in a new version by David Greig – is obsessed with the playing out of gender in this new world of relationships. Tekla (played here by Elise Stone), unlike most nineteenth-century women, is more sexually experienced than her husband. She is also older and more successful in her career (and calls him affectionately ‘little brother’). And it is in exploring the effect this has on Adolph that the play is at its strongest.

It is Gustav who combats Tekla’s independence with a return to misogynistic language and tropes. For him a woman is ‘just a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts’. He scorns her, her writing, and her accomplishments. He uses his sexual history with her to diminish her power. And he persuades Adolph to give up painting for sculpture – particularly the sculpting of the female form, with its corresponding overtones of a Pygmalion power dynamic between husband and wife. Josh Tyson, as Adolph, does a good job in displaying his insecurities – the fear that what attracted him to Tekla will also be what makes him lose her. ‘I’ve seen her when you’re not there’, Gustav tells him, trying to convince him that his wife is dangerously unknowable.

Compared to Adolph, Gustav and Tekla’s characters are a little two dimensional in this production. Craig Smith is more convincing as Gustav when he acts as the Machiavellian schemer in the opening portions, than when he comes into contact with Tekla. And Tekla falls short of being a feminist icon, much as Strindberg felt his play had contributed much to Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 Hedda Gabler, giving Stone, at times, little to work with. In a play obsessed with sex, the chemistry is sadly lacking – when the two pairs squabble it’s believable, when they fall into each others’ arms, it’s not. 

Overall, director Kevin Confoy has done a decent job in putting on a really interesting play which has much to recommend it. It’s not one to watch on a first date, or if you’re thinking about popping the question. The moral of the story is: romantic relationships are fraught, relationships between artists mutually destructive, and humans may be capable of loving two people at once, but definitely aren’t good at accepting that from their partners. Some things never change.

You can learn more about the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and upcoming productions here.

Do you know of any productions of nineteenth-century plays in New York the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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