A ”Creditors” journey

or

Why a Swede should go to London to see Strindberg

 

Janna G. Spanne (a.k.a. Achrya)

 

 

Mr. Rickman says: ”You’ve each had your own relationship with the story: we could go ’round with this microphone now and find out who thought what...”

 

So, this is neither a researched, balanced, professional piece of criticism, nor an expression of a cool blogger’s ironical distance. It’s a member of the audience hogging the microphone for a while.

I spent some 40 hours on trains to see the Donmar Warehouse production of “Creditors”. Before that, I did my homework on Strindberg’s original text for a few weeks. A two-hour Eurostar delay had me catch the first preview by the skin of my teeth, straight from St. Pancras station with all my baggage. And I was back at Donmar two days later.

Did the investment pay off? Yes, it did. Amply so.

 

Mr. Rickman says: “Who I am gets in the way of people looking innocently at the roles I play.”

 

There is such a thing as too much personal information. An artist uses his individual experience to create a character and tell a story with general, universal dimensions. As the spectators bring their own experiences and needs into the process, they are impacted in individual ways – but paying too much attention to the artist’s personal background hampers the impact.

This is true in the case of authors as well as actors.

The educated Swede’s view of Strindberg is often tainted by too many personal anecdotes. Literary students analysing “Creditors” spend inordinate amounts of energy on identifying the actual persons in Strindberg’s social circles who inspired each character. It’s an efficient way of disarming Strindberg, tying him down to his own time and place, and avoiding personal confrontation. What’s Siri von Essen to me? Quite likely less than a fictional Hecuba.

When Strindberg appears as an incoherent mix of rabid political radicalism, mouldy male chauvinism, ruthless artistic modernism, maudlin romantic self-pity and muddled misguided pseudo-science, it’s easy to dismiss his “realistic” plays as senselessly depressing attempts at public self-therapy. 

 

Yet there is something to make “Creditors” worth Alan Rickman’s while. If my past reluctant discoveries of “The Winter Guest”, “The Return of the Native” and “Sweeney Todd” are anything to go by, I should sit up and pay attention. The entrance to Strindberg may lie in this, by necessity a less parochial approach, when a British creative team interprets the play for a British audience.

Let’s forget the various Departments of Literary Studies, the Strindberg-bashing knee-jerk reflexes of sundry Swedish gender theorists and other intellectuals, for a more universally human approach.

 

In the excerpt quoted in the programme to Donmar’s “Creditors” Germaine Greer likens the experience of the play to watching a street fight between hooligans. Why, then, should I bother?

My life’s too short to spend hours observing wanton destruction that has nothing entertaining or instructive in it.  So, how does one look innocently at a text where three revolting characters turn each other’s lives into hell, seemingly unable to do otherwise?

 

There must be some key to making it feel relevant.

 

Mr. Rickman says: “Everything comes from the writing.”

(It keeps coming back to that. Ask a British Shakespearean actor about his work, and sooner or later he will say: “It’s all in the text.” While the nation of Strindberg has pretty much tossed out the notion of a professional dramatic text...)

 

And Mr. Rickman says: “You can’t judge the character you’re playing. I’ve no clue. I’m just playing this person who operates within a certain parameter of thinking, of feeling, and walking, running, sitting,  and relating to other people. I want certain things... ”

 

No villains or heroes here, then, only people who behave according to their motives and needs under given circumstances: a way of thinking that I recognise from cognitive therapy, to observe without judging. 

 

So what is there in the text, and how does one observe it without judging? Observing without judging doesn’t mean that I consider the characters in a vacuum: their social and intellectual circumstances are a necessary part of what motivates them and limits their interactions.
Here I must disagree with Germaine Greer: Gustav is not any man at any time. Today many power structures are routinely being questioned in terms that were only beginning to emerge in Strindberg’s days. Male supremacy
was a totally dominant idea in his society: the fight for women’s suffrage began in earnest in 1900, and women didn’t achieve full civic rights until 1921. The Uebermensch was a respectable philosophical concept in intellectual circles (Strindberg corresponded with Nietzsche for some time). Modern young intellectuals believed, as a matter of course, in scientific and social progress at the cost of destroying old “haulage” (Strindberg’s most frequently quoted poem speaks about tearing down old buildings in order to make room for more light).

Gustav’s stance on all these ideas differs from Tekla’s and Adolph’s, and so they felt like suitable elements to relate to when first dealing with the text.

Another way of observing without judging was to note how the characters’ status levels change as the dialogue progresses. Does a given line seem to “raise” or “lower” the speaker, his/her interlocutor, or the person spoken about? Such decisions while reading kept me too busy to “like” or “dislike” the characters. 

 

What I also found in the original text of “Creditors” was a considerable amount of cobwebs and dust: expressions and allusions understandable only in its specific context of time, place and culture. Strindberg being the Swedish national champion of the aphorism, the pearls are there – but the oysters take a lot of hammering to crack. Overall, David Greig’s adaptation removes  the debris admirably. He adheres closely to the original, but where the local convolutions would require repeated readings and access to period references, or where a verbatim translation would simply miss the point, he cuts straight to the gist and makes it perfectly clear to the first-time spectator/listener. Replacing Danish with French in Tekla’s comment about her meeting, and simplifying Tekla’s and Gustav’s inside joke, are two examples of the brilliance of the adaptation.

The only two points where I’d have preferred a different choice of words are Tekla’s pet name and Gustav’s closing line.

In the Swedish original Tekla playfully calls herself “Kurre”, a name with a clearly feline connotation. “Kurre” and “Murre” are typical kittens’ names in story books for very young children, while, in an adult context, alluding at the female sexual anatomy – so a pet name like “Kitty” might capture those dimensions to some extent.

Gustav’s final “Stackars människa!” is gender neutral, and thus at least two-ways ambiguous. Greig’s “Poor woman!” disambiguates it, while something along the lines of “poor miserable wretch” would have him pitying not only Tekla, but also Adolph – and possibly himself.

On the whole, though, I can only hope that the adaptation will be published in print. Certainly anyone wanting to produce the play in Swedish would do well to see or read Greig’s English version. It’s eminently more playable and watchable than Strindberg’s original – and it removes archaism as the modern spectator’s means of avoiding personal confrontation. The translation/adaptation is the first, crucial step towards making the play feel relevant.

 

For the first preview on 25 September I arrived at Donmar Warehouse barely in time and straight off the delayed Eurostar from Brussels. But entering the theatre and seeing the set was enough to focus me completely on the play. The light colours, the style of the furniture, the huge windows, everything evoked the atmosphere of the Stockholm Archipelago where the wealthier families in Strindberg’s time relocated for the summer. Those rich and established enough had a wooden summer villa of their own, others rented rooms in boarding houses – just like Tekla, Adolph and Gustav. Even today the light, cheerful Archipelago atmosphere is the most idealised archetype of the Swedish summer: the compulsory idyll where psychological disasters take place in the light of large windows on pale-scrubbed birch-wood floors behind closed white-painted doors. In this way, by staying visually anchored in the original environment, the Donmar production maintains an excellent balance between universality and locality. For the basic conflict of the play may be universal, but some aspects of its treatment are quite recognisably Swedish.

The very concept of mental and emotional creditors, collecting on debts of ideas and feelings, is more readily available in the essentially mercantile Swedish culture than in any other. Young Swedish intellectuals of the 19th century – university students, journalists, artists – turned living on credit into an art form in its own right, borrowing anew to pay off old debts and keeping track of the exact minute you had to turn the corner to arrive at the bank in time to renew your promissory note. The creditor was an universal bogey man, subject to envy, fear and loathing; a person’s indebted condition a frequent subject of ale-house conversation. So the metaphoric step from the tangible world of money to the abstract world of ideas and emotions would be short and natural.

Also, consider how easily Adolph is swayed from his identity as a painter to see himself as a sculptor. The Swedish culture has virtually no tradition of artistic craft and professional training. Schools and academies did and do exist, but their position has always been marginal compared to continental Europe or Britain. If a person believes himself to have a creative urge, and considers himself talented, there’s very little to prevent him from styling himself a painter, a writer, an actor. His career simply hinges on making others believe it by some means. And so, being self-taught, without having made much of an investment to develop his instrument, Adolph may consider himself a painter or a sculptor by a mere change of mindset under Gustav’s influence.

 

Back to Donmar Warehouse. Enter Gustav, who begins setting the stage for his charade. He raises the blinds on the windows to shed light on the situation – all three of them at the first preview; two evenings later, only one. In proper scientific procedure, he waits to adjust the light of his microscope until the preparation, Adolph, is in place under the objective lens...

and the game is afoot, in full view of the audience surrounding the stage on three sides.

 

The thrust stage sometimes makes me think of an interview I’ve read with a stage magician who commented on how difficult it was to move his act to a circus. On a proscenium stage you’re only visible from the front; the “black box” may hide and disguise a certain amount of fumbling.
In a circus ring the audience is all around you, able to see the black bag you use to make the Persian cat “disappear”. It may be more subtle for the actor, but I imagine the situation just as difficult, being forced to turn your back on a part of the Watching Beast.

It certainly involves me, the spectator, very efficiently, particularly in a small theatre like the Donmar.
I saw “Creditors” twice: the first time, from the first row of circle – like watching the neighbours’ marital conflict from my own balcony. And the second time, from the first row of stalls – like a child hiding under the dining-room table when the parents are quarrelling. 

 

And this is the simile that Germaine Greer uses for “Creditors”: the play makes us feel “as helpless and appalled as children listening to their parents fighting”. Precisely the impression I was left with after the first few readings.  

When their parents fight, children will cower under the blankets, frightened, vaguely ashamed. Then they may beat up other children to vent their frustration, or escape into alcohol and drugs, or find an illusion of closeness and tenderness in a much-too-early acquaintance with sex. 

Fortunately, the Donmar production encourages the audience to be adults, able to learn from others’ mistakes, to relate other people’s actions to one’s own and to be aware of human motives, options, choices and their consequences. 

 

Cognitive scientists have only recently begun exploring what theatre people have known for hundreds of years: the impact of theatre is so much more immediate than that of the written word because, on stage, the ideas, motives, choices and consequences are embodied.
Today we know that humans even have specific cells in the brain that mirror the outward emotional expressions of our interlocutors, which is why smiles and tears are contagious. The mechanism helps us interpret the mindset and feelings of the people we interact with, and is of course crucial for the impact of theatre and film on the spectator.

So – “it’s in the text”, but the mediation of the director and actors determines if, and how efficiently, “it” will reach the audience. To take us from childish helplessness to adult empowerment, to show the spectator that there are various “truths” to a situation, the actors must embody the characters and their interactions in a many-faceted way. And the director is not only the Socratic “midwife” of each actor’s performance, but also the cat-herder responsible for the overall coherence and balance, the whole thing making sense to us, the audience.

 

Many good things have already been said by professional critics about the brilliant direction and acting in this production. I agree with every word I’ve read on that subject, and have no better way of expressing the praise – so consider it all repeated here, many times over.

As acting means embodiment, and with a little experience of dance as a form of artistic expression, I tend to focus a lot on movement and body language. I greatly admired the contrast between Adolph’s stunted, lurching movements and the rich physicality of his two partners/adversaries. Anna Chancellor’s Tekla is, in spite of being sensitive on the subject of age, a woman at home in her body and clothing. Tekla grew up wearing a corset: it doesn’t prevent her doing anything she pleases, including sprawling provocatively on the floor and the next second bouncing up to assume a different position.

And even Owen Teale’s Gustav, the academic lecturer, presumably the very personification of stiffness, has an outburst of unbridled physicality when “teaching” Adolph how to be an epileptic. Originally played out on one of the sofas in a restrained format, at the third preview the scene took place at the centre of the stage, with Gustav collapsing on the floor and almost immediately jumping up with a roar at which the audience shared Adolph’s shock.

Tom Burke’s Adolph was the performance that I felt had  most “fallen into place” from one preview to the next. He was convincing from the very beginning as the impressionable idealist barely out of his teens, but at my second viewing I found that he had perfected yet another dimension, an emotional Timon of Athens who had been giving freely of himself during his wife’s bout of depression, and found himself an impoverished and baffled creditor with nothing to collect in his own time of need.

 

In the audience, everyone brings his/her own cognitive luggage into the experience. The threesome may be a favourite dramatic constellation at least since Adam, Eve and the snake, but when watching “Creditors”, I was reminded of another modern threesome, Sartre’s “Huis clos”. There, two women and a man are locked up together in a room in Hell. No devils appear to torment them; they manage the job admirably themselves. The audience is left with the choice between two conclusions: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is other people) and “L’enfer, c’est nous-mźmes” (Hell is ourselves).
And the answer is? Both, just like in “Creditors”.

 

As they go about creating hell for each other and themselves, at one point Gustav berates Adolph for not being a free-thinker when it comes to women – for wanting to adore them as a substitute for religion. No, Adolph is no free-thinker. He has constantly need of crutches, not only physical, but mental and intellectual, and, through his lack of critical thinking, is an easy prey for a manipulative charlatan. 

But how freely does Gustav himself think about women?  He claims to “know” what women are like, what they need and what they are capable – and incapable – of. I’m not satisfied with putting it down to his personal bitterness. Gustav is a lecturing scholar, who sees laws, systems and generalisations everywhere. Tekla’s betrayal may have strengthened him in his convictions, but from what he says about their early married life, his fixed view of the female nature was solidly in place even then. Like Adolph, he is a prisoner of his own pre-conceived notions.

And so is Tekla – vainly chasing a set of inconsistent ideals. For her own part, she wants to be admired for her looks and feminine charm, but also respected for her masculine intellect.  The man in her life should be tolerant, empathic, affectionate, but a “real” man: dominant,  decisive and assertive, not looking to her for help, support, partnership.

 

One of the professional reviews claims that the Donmar production is not exactly a feminist re-interpretation of the play, I strongly disagree. Feminism may be a lot of things, and, certainly, this variety is not of the card-carrying, slogan-shouting kind. Tekla is not simply an oppressed victim, or a freedom-fighting hero. She is far more than that: she is represented as an individual human being with a specific personality, interacting with a given situation to the best of her ability. To my mind this is the highest degree of feminism in the theatre. No matter how modern or progressive the play, female characters too often end up representing their gender, as symbols or archetypes. As many gender theorists have noted, male characters are individuals, female characters are women, of one type or another. Chancellor’s Tekla has not only her own, comprehensible motives, problems and solutions, but also an unaffected physicality, not just limited to sexual behaviour, that helps turn her into a complete, many-faceted character on a par with both the men. I’m reminded of how difficult I often find it to identify with female characters in American film. There is too much surface: high heels, sheer stockings, a disciplined waist line, perfect foundation, accentuated eyes, fluffed-up hair, all that artificial stuff hiding the person inside. In spite of historical costume, Tekla is the exact opposite of Hollywood’s Barbie dolls. Greig, Rickman and Chancellor have turned her into a complete, accessible human being: a feat of practical feminism worth more than any wagonload of pamphlets.

 

Gustav, the motor of the drama, may not notice the “log in his own eye”, his fixed pre-conceived notions, but, believing himself the strongest and most intelligent one, he assumes the right to use everyone else’s faults against them.

It does take two to tango: for a manipulation to be successful, the manipulator has to be intelligent, a good listener, flexible and quite ruthless – but letting oneself be manipulated is also a behaviour, and, with awareness, behaviours can be modified.

I find that Burke, Chancellor, Teale and Rickman interpret Strindberg’s text in a way that sharpens my awareness. Adolph’s and Tekla’s actions represent different responses to manipulation; Adolph allows himself to be the object of circumstances, simply reacting to others’ actions, completely blind to the possibility of behaving otherwise. Tekla, to begin with, selectively hears Gustav say what she wants to hear – but later manages to step clear of the situation, observe it from the outside, and see through Gustav’s machinations.

And Gustav is far from just being the villain of the piece. In Teale’s interpretation, Gustav is a truly many-faceted character, intelligent and knowledgeable, with understandable motives, moments of painful sincerity, sometimes uttering sentences in which he is quite obviously trying to convince himself and failing miserably; a man whose once good intentions have blown up in his face, making him bitter and vindictive. His comical moments, many more than just a reading of the play will disclose, are a hint to us spectators: that laughter may be a viable method of disarming a manipulator.

 

In an interview for “Official London Theatre”, Owen Teale said about “Creditors”:

“...rather than there be three clearly distinct characters, they are more three parts of himself [Strindberg]; it’s like a stream of consciousness, it’s a war within himself.”

I must admit that, reading this, I yelped with delight (to the puzzlement of my office work mates). The names of the two male characters also constitute the best-known Swedish double name, Gustav Adolf – it’s a traditional name of Swedish kings, and several cities in this country have a Gustav Adolf Square. Ever since noticing that, I’ve been speculating about the two men being different sides of Strindberg himself; Tekla, to boot, stands for the progressive ideas about women’s rights that Strindberg seems to have held in his youth, at least in theory. So, to reconcile the various seemingly schizophrenic aspects of Strindberg’s person and ideas, one could obviously do a lot worse than studying “Creditors”.

 

So – two sleepless nights, one anxiety attack (it's SAD time, in case you didn't know) and a week's reflection later, what did this particular spectator learn from "Creditors" at Donmar Warehouse?

Intellectually, to think about Strindberg in new ways. I may never become a fan or an expert, but I understand more of his qualities and complexity. I'm better motivated to watch his plays and to do my homework on them.

– And on a more uncomfortable, personal level? Seeing one's own faults in fictional characters does, after all, make them better accessible to analysis and change.

Well, I certainly noticed a few: in Adolph my lack of assertiveness and independence; in Tekla my thoughtlessness and egotism under stress; in Gustav my intellectual vanity and tendency to pontificate.

But recognising echoes of Tekla, Adolph and Gustav in annoying individuals I meet in daily life also gives me a sense of distance that makes them easier to deal with.

Interestingly, on the same London trip I saw “Timon of Athens” at The Globe – another play about creditors, this time in the ordinary financial sense. There, black-clad debt collectors in wide-sleeved wing-like costumes swept down like harpies and demanded payment in a striking physical parallel to Strindberg’s three intellectual and moral mutual creditors. When plays click with your mental baggage, new connections form and pieces fall into place. These double aspects of debt and credit left me above all with an overwhelming sense of gratitude: for having the good fortune and unmitigated dumb luck of living in a relationship without harpies, without manipulation, without prestige struggles, without fear that anything I say may be stored in my partner’s memory and used against me in a future conflict. I know, that’s a rather verbose way of saying that I love my husband... but Strindberg plus Shakespeare are a rather elaborate way of renewing that awareness.

 

In an older interview – can’t find the reference at the moment – Mr. Rickman said something about not wanting the audience to leave the theatre saying: “Well, that was interesting. Now, where’s the taxi?”

 

In the case of “Creditors” I find that extremely unlikely.

No worries there, Mr. Rickman.

 

And thanks a million for the key.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Lund,Sweden,  4-5 October 2008, amended 18-19 October)