David Grieg’s spare and savage re-do of “Creditors,” Strindberg’s nasty-tempered revenge drama about an abandoned husband who gets back at his faithless wife by driving her new husband crazy, came out of Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse, the same London hit factory that produced such recent stunners as “Red,” “Mary Stuart,” “Frost/Nixon,” and the Jude Law “Hamlet.” But even in this snappy production, stringently directed by Alan Rickman, this 1889 Swedish hand-me-down lacks that critical element of instant identification that would make a modern audience want to clutch this show to its heart.
Truth to tell, we’d rather have seen actor-turned-helmer Rickman in the Iago-like role of Gustav (Owen Teale), the ex-husband who happens to find himself at the same seaside hotel as his ex-wife and her new, younger husband, and takes the opportunity to destroy them both. Set designer Ben Stones’ bleached wooden daybeds and lightman Howard Harrison’s harsh rays of sunlight conspire to create a laboratory setting for this psychological bloodletting.
Teale (“Mary Stuart”) is an authoritative actor who stands with a rigid spine and seethes with fury as he masterminds the destruction of this marriage. But the Scandinavian chilliness he assumes for the role is a few ice cubes over the top of the glass. While carefully picking at every scab on Gustav’s wounded ego, he neglects to convey the indecent sexual thrill he is presumably getting from tormenting his victims.
To his everlasting credit, though, Teale holds his head high while the aud howls at Grieg’s bald-faced rendering of some of the subtle arguments Gustav uses to destroy young Adolph’s (young Tom Burke) belief in himself as an artist, a husband, and a man. Gustav’s sly insinuation that his wife’s sexual dominance has emasculated Adolph, making him prey to illness and subject to epileptic fits, brings the house down, an indication that interpreting this dark drama as tragicomedy has its downside.
Burke (“The Cut”) also mans up through the disconcerting laughter. Wisely, he does it by sinking wholeheartedly into Adolph’s credulous responses to Gustav’s brazen misrepresentations of the young man’s strengths as an artist and his appeal as a lover. Playing Adolph’s extreme sensitivity, he smartly distracts us from the little guy’s abject stupidity.
As the female centerpiece of this wicked psychosexual battle of the sexes, the enchanting Anna Chancellor (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) is so vibrantly alive and healthy in mind and body that she almost throws off the dynamic. Thinking, no doubt, of his own multiple wretched marriages, Strindberg meant Tekla to be the evil woman who deserted the loving husband who shaped her character and nurtured her artistic talent. But unlike Gustav’s pumped-up machismo and Adolph’s spineless sensitivity, Tekla’s womanly strength and sexuality doesn’t seem so overstated — at least, not in Chancellor’s radiant perf.
Down she comes, as down she must, in Strindberg’s flagellating portrayal of her as the archetypal Woman as the Source of all Evil. But it’s ironic that, in writing her up to bring her down, the aggrieved playwright created the only truly modern character in his play.