Monday, May 10, 2010

Strindbergian Archetypes in Brooklyn

Creditors is a three-character play by August Strindberg written circa 1888. The version I saw at BAM is by playwright David Greig as presented by the ubiquitous Donmar Warehouse. Since I’ve not read the Strindberg, I couldn’t say how much of the evening’s entertainment was Strindberg and how much Greig. But entertaining it was, in a guilty sort of way, which befits the play’s classification as Dark Comedy. Alan Rickman – yes, Snape in the Harry Potter series, the ultimate Eurotrash villain in the first Die Hard, and the best Vicomte de Valmont I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many -- directed this mostly brisk production.

The scene is set for us as we enter the BAM Harvey Theatre. Curtainless, seemingly lit only by the ambient light of the auditorium, it is white. Not searing, screaming white. The white of faded age, of wood that has survived wear and tear, of fabrics not dingy but not bright, having been washed too many times. This space, a public room in a hotel, will be used as a private room by all three characters. It has a door up center that leads outside to a vacation spot. An exit down right leads to unknown unpeopled rooms in the hotel. High windows let in pale sunlight. Two divans await guests. Ben Stone’s set is inviting while offering a somehow dirty sterility. Howard Harrison lights it subtly, naturalistically but without warmth. It is winter light.

The play is in thirds, each third a two-person scene. A play of two-person scenes screams ‘amateur!’ to me, yet this is polished, precise Strindberg. This structure was a choice. Certainly the meeting of all three characters in the same room at the same time would be catastrophic, like the same people from parallel universes coming together in the same time/place/dimension. Strindberg did not allow that to happen until the last minutes of the play.

Creditors is performed without intermission. The first third gives us a confessional conversation. An older, sophisticated gentlemen, well dressed, precise, confident, enters the colorless scene. A younger, sloppy, quivering man, ill equipped for life among grownups, follows, pushing a wheeled white cart with something hidden under an off-white drape.

These men have only just met, yet the younger man, Adolph, tells the older man all manner of things about himself, his wife, their marriage. He reveals a sculpture under the drape, a nude of a woman leaning back, her legs spread. The older man guesses this is the young man’s wife. This and other of the angst-ridden Adolph’s innermost secrets are gathered, manipulated, and spewed back at him by the older man. It’s initially amusing, then increasingly virulent and vicious. The audience becomes complicit with the older man’s witty skewering of Adolph’s world. We laugh at the clever cruelty.

In this unequal match between Adolph (believably if rather annoyingly played to his neurotic edge by Tom Burke) and Gustav (coldly witty, brilliantly played by Owen Teale), Mr. Teale has the advantage of playing the sharp and angry character who acts upon the others. We don’t know Gustav’s name, of course, until the third third. But more on that anon.

Gustav’s manipulation of Adolph during the first scene led to a perfect enactment of the older man’s predictions in the second. Gustav exits the stage, leaving the young man alone (visually at least) to greet his wife, a woman some years his senior, far more sophisticated and confident, behaving precisely as Gustav had predicted she would.

Anna Chancellor’s Tekla spends much of the time on her back on one or the other of those divans. Strindberg posits that human relations are driven primarily by sexual urges, and Tekla is his most blatant archetype for this position. Both men, at different times, lie on top of her, fondling; no victim, she, Tekla invites and encourages this. At no time is she put upon. She is strong and free, going from responsive to passionate to gleefully lustful when she’s on top.

Both husband and wife refer to Tekla’s first husband as an idiot. As a novelist, it appears Tekla had been less than discreet about her past with her first husband, and certainly less than kind. The audience is free to guess that this will come back to haunt them. Upon seeing his wife’s behavior precisely as Gustav predicted it would be, Adolph behaves like a betrayed man. It took less than an hour for this marriage to be destroyed. Adolph stormed out, leaving Tekla alone and confused.

At some point during the Tekla/Adolph scene, the play dipped. The couple’s energy dissipated and dimmed. The tautness lost, Burke and Chancellor plodded along until they broke free of the quicksand they toiled in. The audience patiently waited for Teale to return.

At last, in the third third, the older man entered and began a new charade with Tekla. As he entered, she said, “Gustav!” as if she was shocked, even weak at the knees upon seeing him. He was suddenly soft spoken, gentle, perhaps embarrassed. Finally we are told this is his ex wife. Yes that older gent that verbally lacerated the young Adolph was that first husband betrayed by the younger couple.

If this was supposed to be a surprise, it wasn’t.

Adolph had left behind his rather tasteless sculpture of his wife. Gustav disdainfully covered it with its moist drape. In a brilliant moment, he showed his ex-wife his own sensitivity and her second husband’s lack thereof. Gustav seduces his ex-wife knowing her second husband is listening at the door. Somehow the younger man dies of … we know not what, also as predicted by Gustav.

It sounds absurd. No one dies when he eavesdrops on a man seducing his wife. Absurd and overblown as it sounds, this play works rather well, no detours are taken in the story, it just builds to its semi-logical conclusion (logical in 1888, at any rate). On the way, it bludgeons, it cuts and tickles, and finally it explodes. Not unusually, the most interesting and entertaining character is malicious and funny, searing like ice.

In summary --
Owen Teale kept the play afloat for me. The controlled fury in his Gustav, the hate, the humiliation that never leaves him, shaped him to a very fine, sharp instrument. He sliced and diced his ex-wife and her new husband’s hopes, their trust, their faith. Teale’s Gustav was a fabulously mean intellectual Darwinist ready to kill the second husband right in front of Tekla.

Tekla was desperately looking for more than Adolph or Gustav could give her, and Ms. Chancellor struggled to discover what it was she was after. Tekla had done questionable things, and paid for them in the second and third thirds of the play, yet Chancellor did not make me feel for her despite the character’s obvious pain and despair.

Adolph is an extremely difficult role. I just couldn’t tell if Adolph was Johnny One Note or Mr. Burke was. Burke was in some ways splendid yet he was such a whining juvenile, there was no moment he was on stage that he was not annoying. Poor Adolph. He’s merely the weapon for Gustav to use against Tekla. This seemingly grown man is really more like the child of divorce who believes the mother’s story, unconditionally, despite the missing facts of the father’s point of view. Still, I would have wished for some variations in Burke’s Adolph.

[If I wanted to shrink the playwright, perhaps I’d wonder at these three characters. Strindberg wasn’t good at marriage, no matter how many times he tried it. Perhaps this trio was really husband, wife and child.]

I think the play, in 2010, shows its dramatic flaws. Perhaps more importantly, the actors weren’t entirely in the same production: Anna Chancellor was in a serious play; Owen Teale was in a dark comedy with serious content and consequences; Burke’s Adolph was in a deeply serious play. And when that happens, the responsibility falls on the director, Mr. Rickman.

Nevertheless, cheers to Alan Rickman for a highly entertaining if imperfect production. And one quibble about the sound effect at the opening: The dripping water. When one is seeing a 90-minute play without an intermission, the sound of dripping water will make the audience wish the play was shorter. And, call me dense (you wouldn’t be the first), I don’t get it. What were the drips about?

According to Germaine Greer, these three characters weren’t people at all, but archetypes. Can one really empathize with an archetype? Strindberg wouldn't have cared, but I should think Mr. Rickman would.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light. There’s always reading to be done.

1 comment:

  1. You give Rickman more credit than I would. Directing 101: Avoid symmetry. It really annoyed me that most of the play took place with two people facing each other on symmetrical divans talking across to each other.