Theatre review: Creditors, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

With the great Scottish director and designer Stewart Laing, you either go there, into the strange theatrical worlds he imagines, or you don't; and for me, his new production of August Strindberg's 1889 domestic drama Creditors, at the Lyceum, is a perfectly crafted and imagined piece of theatre, taking David Greig's successful 2008 version of the play and transforming it into a unique and enthralling two-hour experience for our time.

The Lyceum Production of Creditors
The Lyceum Production of Creditors

Creditors, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh *****

Like all Strindberg’s work from the late 1880s, Creditors is a savage no-holds barred drama about what he saw as the war between men and women. Terrified of women’s sexual and life-giving power, yet completely fascinated by them, Strindberg is a rare male writer who gives full, uncensored vent to his irrational feelings of terror, disgust and misogyny; and in Creditors he examines the triangular relationship between a beautiful woman called Tekla, her passionate young second husband – an artist called Adolph – and an older man, Gustav, who appears in the lakeside village where they are staying.

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Tekla is away for the day; and in her absence the older man befriends Adolph, and –like a latter-day Iago – works away viciously at his sexual fears and insecurities, gradually moving from insidious questions about the balance of power in the relationship, to a stream of viscerally shocking misogynistic bile.

The vulnerable Adolph buys into most of this, like a young lad on the internet being “radicalised” by violent alt-right misogynists. By the time Tekla returns it’s difficult to believe that this perfectly normal, bright, intelligent and loving woman is the same person who has been the object of such violent hatred and projection.

All of this unfolds with a slightly dream-like logic on Laing’s set of neat dark-wood lakeside chalets; between acts, a group of four stylised, waxy-faced girl guides appear, to the sound of fierce metallic rock music from Pippa Murphy’s remarkable sound design, and demonstrate their ruthless expertise in areas like orienteering, fire-lighting and –eventually – first aid.

Then, at the critical moment when Gustav’s real identity is revealed, Laing shifts his crucial conversation with Tekla indoors, showing it to us via a live video link. The effect of this intimate camera work is unforgettable, forcing us to question again and again whose perspective Strindberg is taking, with this shocking but uniquely honest expose of rampant patriarchal attitudes.

And with Edward Franklin, Stuart McQuarrie and a stunning Adura Onashile delivering three remarkable performances as Strindberg’s fierce trio of lovers and haters, this Creditors is a theatre event that burns itself on the mind; not easy, not always pleasant, but truly brilliant.

Until 12 May