It was a different world when David Greig first adapted August Strindberg’s play, Creditors, a decade ago. Back then, when the playwright and current artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, was first approached by the late Alan Rickman to look at the play for a production at the Donmar in London, Strindberg’s lacerating study of a marriage in crisis seemed eyebrow-raisingly modern for a piece written in 1888, but no more.
Ten years on, and Greig is revisiting his version of the play for a new production at the Lyceum directed and designed by Stewart Laing. In the light of the MeToo movement and a culture of high-level misogyny previously hiding in plain sight, the extremes of Creditors now appear even more startling.
“It’s about marriage,” says Greig, “and it’s about men and women, particularly men’s emotional fragility. There’s an extraordinary theatrical energy that Strindberg releases in actors. He creates a room which is like a boxing ring, and then he puts the characters in the room and lets them slug out relationships in a very modern way.”
Greig previously adapted a version of Strindberg’s play, The Father, for a production in New York. Watching this as well as various productions of Creditors, Greig observed similar reactions.
“In both cases, in London and in New York, I was struck by how much the audiences got involved. They were like the audience at a boxing match. They would gasp when certain blows were landed, or even sometimes be a bit like a wrestling crowd, particularly in New York, where they could be quite loud. If the woman landed a blow verbally on her husband, they would be like, yeah, you go girl.”
Creditors focuses on the relationship between a couple while on holiday in a Swedish seaside town. A chance meeting with an apparent stranger opens up old wounds that question the very foundations of their marriage.
“There’s something perennially interesting about wanting to see the innards of a relationship where two people are tearing each other apart,” says Greig, “but if that was all they were doing, it wouldn’t be very interesting. The thing about this play is that each character is as much driven by love and vulnerability as they are by anger, jealousy and fury.
“It’s very vulnerable. It’s a very tender play. I’ve been making comparisons between Strindberg and Ibsen, and I think Ibsen tends to present the world kind of as he thinks it ought to be, whereas Strindberg can’t help himself, he writes the world as he experiences it. And he’s a very raw emotional and quite a foolish man in a way. So his characters are undefended. They reveal themselves as if they’re naked in a way that feels really contemporary. It doesn’t feel at all Victorian.
“A lot of the things that they say, you would absolutely hear them in the way that a couple might talk now. Strindberg is so desperate to dig out the truth about how we feel and why we feel the way we do about each other, so it’s all quite voyeuristic to watch his plays, and if it works it should feel a bit like that.”
In this sense, Creditors is a warts and all study of the play’s writer as much as any of the things that brings out.
“Up to a point it’s a portrait of Strindberg’s own marriage,” says Greig, “but where another playwright doing that might tend to show themselves in a positive light, he doesn’t. It’s very rare that someone does a portrait of a marriage in which they are unaware that they are showing themselves as an absolute mess.
“One of the things that’s interesting about Strindberg, particularly in terms of masculinity – and this of course is something that wasn’t terribly present in the play ten years ago, but is much more present now – is that Strindberg’s masculinity is tremendously threatened. He’s completely terrified of the power that he perceives women to have over him.
“Strindberg is writing a play which shows how women are terrifyingly powerful, and is meant to be a sort of warning to men. Actually, in a weird way, what he ends up showing is men’s weakness, and the fragility and unsustainable façade of masculinity, while the woman comes across as complex and interesting in a way that some other heroines of the period are not. That’s because they’re written by men who think women are victims and the weaker sex and should be treated better.”
While Laing doesn’t see his production, which was programmed a year ago, as any kind of deliberate response to recent events, he does identify three very current tropes within the play.
“One is that one of the men is a man-child,” he says. “He’s a young man who can’t find maturity, and even in his late twenties as a married man, is still behaving like a child. The other one is an unreconstructed alpha male, and then there’s this strong independent woman, who I think has really clear ideas about what she should be allowed to do. That all feels pretty modern to me.
Like Greig, Laing too has a track record with Strindberg. The Father was the first play that Laing ever directed. That was at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, where he also oversaw a production of what is arguably Strindberg’s most extreme play, Dance of Death.
“It feels like good territory for me,” says Laing, who first saw Greig’s version of Creditors in a 2015 production at the Young Vic, which featured an all-male cast. For his production, Laing will remain faithful to the play’s gender dynamic as written. He will also oversee its design. Given some of his visual work on productions at the Citz and with his Untitled Projects company, which are works of art in their own right, it will be interesting to know what to expect.
“I think I’m doing it period,” he says, “but I’m not doing a lot of period research, so I think I’m doing it period, but in a not very authentic way.”
Laing’s production aims to address the onstage gender imbalance in other ways.
“I think it’s interesting in a play about independent women that there are two men onstage and one woman. It feels to me that she’s got to fight a little bit harder for her corner, so we’ve looked at that.”
The end result of all this is an inadvertently timely study that goes beyond dramatised biography.
“Strindberg’s anxieties are the anxieties of all masculinity,” says Greig. “It’s just that he can’t hide it. And I think it’s more dangerous hidden than it is open. Is Strindberg misogynist? Yes. I’m not going in to bat for him as a feminist or anything like that. But I think only to the extent that masculinity as constructed in our society is already constructed as a tottering edifice of paranoia, fear and the desire to control that which you desire.
“In a way I think I’m more distrustful of the writers who try to make the world nice than I am of someone like Strindberg, who just isn’t in control of himself, so reveals the world in all its dark and complex truth. As a result of that, you end up with something quite vulnerable and interesting. And actually, something quite funny. I don’t know if it’s redemptive, but it’s certainly cathartic. In the past Creditors seemed like a boxing match between specific characters. Now, it seems to be about the mess of masculinity.”
Creditors, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 27-May 12
The Herald, April 23rd 2018