Like Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Strindberg’s savage marriage triangle “Creditors” constantly ratchets up tension through its handling not just of the characters but of the audience. Suspense builds because audiences know more than the people onstage, who yearn for emotional truth while fighting for their lives in a whirlpool of deceit. It’s a test of controlled power, and Alan Rickman’s grippingly acted production for the Donmar Warehouse pulls it off with exhilarating intensity.
Each of the three successive confrontations works like a layer of tracing paper being removed. In the first, young, frustrated and physically weak artist Adolphe (Tom Burke) pours out his doubts and fears about his older wife Tekla (Anna Chancellor) to his powerful and increasingly dogmatic new friend Gustav (Owen Teale). Playing him like a violin, Gustav opens Adolphe’s eyes to the “fact” that Tekla is sapping his strength.
Swearing his protege to secrecy, Gustav quickly exits before Tekla appears. Adolphe then confronts her, but we know their erotically charged power struggle is the result of Gustav’s mysterious machinations.
Then, in the third scene, just when Tekla has won an uneasy peace agreement, the tables are turned and the stakes rocket with the revelation of Gustav’s true identity, a fact dangerously withheld from Adolphe with horrifying consequences.
In other words, this is all about lying. To lie convincingly, actors have to appear to be speaking the absolute truth. If their deception is obvious, tension evaporates, but this magnetic trio never falters. The flipside of that degree of emotional conviction is that it risks overcooked sincerity — but that’s never a problem here thanks to Rickman’s minutely calibrated control.
It’s a mark of the director’s grip of mood and flow that, instead of diving in with the crisp dialogue of David Greig’s witty adaptation — updated only in its directness — Rickman creates a brief introduction in which Gustav sets up his victim in every sense.
Without ever revealing a sense of malice aforethought, Teale enters with calm but zealous purpose. He raises tasteful cream blinds to reveal the chilly brightness of Howard Harrison’s blue-white light, almost humming with intensity on the blond wood of Ben Stones’ beautifully spare and formal set. Although manifestly a 19th century Swedish hotel room, the set’s two symmetrically placed daybeds bring the faintly clinical suggestion of a sanatorium — which is vividly appropriate for so exacting and exciting a dissection of marriage, love and jealousy.
Sure of having Adolphe within his grasp, Teale’s easeful but frighteningly authoritarian Gustav grows ever more threatening. As his power grows so, seemingly, does his physical presence.
Burke matches him with a marvelously contradictory, energized exhaustion. Wretchedly withdrawn, he gives Adolphe a misguided watchfulness that affectingly turns in upon itself.
In a stroke of dramatic irony, Adolphe is most alive and hopeful in scenes with his wife. In a career-best performance, Chancellor heats up their exchanges with arresting passion. To her exasperation, Tekla’s mind works far faster than that of her husband. She can read him like a book — an effect made vastly funny by Chancellor’s whiplash disdain — and the actress never lets you forget that the risky games they play are always resolved sexually.
Strindberg’s plays are routinely accused of being as misogynist as they are hard-going. There can be no better refutation of those charges than this fleet, white-heat revival of what now appears to be a neglected classic.