Monday 18 December 2017

Theatre: Strindberg's bilious take on passion

Creditable: Susan Bracken, Kevin Olohan and Ronan Leahy in Creditors at the New Theatre. Photo: Ste Murray.
Creditable: Susan Bracken, Kevin Olohan and Ronan Leahy in Creditors at the New Theatre. Photo: Ste Murray.

Emer O'Kelly

August Strindberg's vision of personal passion always seems to distil itself into a concentration of enmity. Physical passion between the sexes in his dystopian world can only lead to pain, even emotional death. But then Strindberg was writing from the experience of an emotional life that pushed him into a melancholic despair close to insanity.

Even Creditors, described justifiably as a tragi-comedy, has only loneliness and pain at its heart and in its toxic denouement.

The play would have a sledgehammer impact written in the 21st century; that Strindberg wrote it in the 1880s is a miraculous leap into the Modernism that led Shaw to promote his plays in England, while O'Neill and O'Casey, among others, acknowledged him as a mentor.

But there is a quixotic humour in Creditors that neither of the latter two reaches (nor did they want to). David Greig's 2008 version of the play is effortless testimony to the universality, even the bilious purity, of Strindberg's conviction that men and women were natural enemies, only occasionally distracted from that path by the mask of sexual intimacy.

And that, Strindberg suggests, and Greig demonstrates with his 2016 barbed dialogue, merely postpones the almost inevitable coup de grâce.

Adolph is a successful painter. While his wife is away he meets Gustav, a teacher, who while admitting to be no doctor, so preys on Adolph's mind that he disrupts his artistic as well as his personal peace, and leads him into a dark world of suspicion and insecurity.

Gustav even persuades the painter that his chosen art form is a dead nothingness.

And when the artist believes him and takes up sculpture instead, the undermining begins once again, leading him into yet another arid nothingness.

When his wife Tekla returns, Adolph, encouraged by the listening Gustav, picks apart their relationship in a storm of suspicion of her imagined adultery.

Yet their love has been so strong that Tekla has given away their child because its eyes reminded her of the first husband who she now regards as a fool.

It is Adolph to whom she owes loyalty as much as love, because he has built her into the successful writer that she now is.

Gustav (of course) is revealed as her first husband, and having destroyed both her and Adolph, he reaps his twisted and bitter revenge for having been humiliated and abandoned.

In the original, Adolph dies of an epileptic fit: Greig leaves death as an uncertainty. But the ending is no less devastating. . . and of course, devastatingly funny.

To do justice to such a finely balanced piece of psychological word-play takes some doing, and C Company, playing at the New Theatre in Dublin, accomplish it with great aplomb and intelligence, with Susan Bracken as Tekla, Ronan Leahy as Gustav and Kevin Olohan as Adolph (although the latter does look rather too young to have been married for a decade or more.)

Aoife Spillane-Hinks directs in Cait Corkery's excellent set, lit by Hannah Bowe.

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