“the chemistry between all three of the actors is totally delectable”
Poor August Strindberg. Despite being just as instrumental to the rise of naturalist drama, the Swedish writer has always played second fiddle to his contemporary Henrik Ibsen, and is often relegated to the footnotes of theatre history. Luckily, Howard Brenton is on hand to provide adaptations of some of Strindberg’s best work at the Jermyn Street Theatre, that seek to remind audiences that his writing was just as seminal as that of A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler.
Creditors, initially written in 1888 ostensibly centres on Adolf (James Sheldon), a painter and sculptor whose anxieties about his new wife Tekla’s (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) faithfulness towards him are exacerbated by an intellectual new friend (David Sturzaker) he’s made. I use the word ‘ostensibly’, because as the plot develops, each character gets their turn in the spotlight that focuses on their motivations and desires. It’s an uncommon structural choice but it works exceptionally well in creating empathy on all sides – a necessity considering the thematic heft of the material, dealing with ideas of faith, love, art, and entitlement in a mature and thoughtful way.
Brenton’s adaptation, based on a translation from Agnes Broomé, crackles with dramatic electricity, that conveys the central questions of the play in smart ways while also facilitating emotionally charged character-driven moments. This is helped in no small part by Tom Littler’s direction and Louie Whitemore’s design, which confidently allow a lot of stillness from the actors to let the script speak for itself, and sets a stellar balance of delivering laughs while also consistently ramping up the tension. The performances, too, are utterly magnetic as the chemistry between all three of the actors is totally delectable. Sheldon and Myer-Bennett in particular share a scene that is oozing with nuance and subtext as the pair play secret agendas against each other, and the dynamic between the two was grippingly unpredictable.
Creditors is not a flawless play – the first third lacks the same creativity and cleverness of the other two, and certain plot points are somewhat predictable, but by and large, the team behind this adaptation have crafted a nigh-on irrefutable argument for Strindberg’s work to remain at the forefront of the pantheon of writers that pioneered drama as we know it today. The play is running on alternating nights with Miss Julie, featuring the same cast and creatives, and I for one cannot wait to return to the Jermyn Street Theatre tomorrow and continue falling in love with this prolific writer’s oft-neglected oeuvre.
“a bold, thought-provoking and inventive interpretation, coated in a dark tale but chock-a-block full of neat little treats”
Walking back to Waterloo Station after the show, I am approached by two moderately well-dressed gentlemen emerging from the crowds. I try to glance away, not look back; seized with a panic. There is a telephone booth half a block away, and two streets further on is the station; but the men’s shadows overtake me before I can step off the kerb. I try to quicken my pace. “Excuse me, Sir”. I freeze…
A playful exaggeration, maybe, of the after-effects of witnessing the Faction’s “The Talented Mr Ripley” at the Vaults Festival (the two men turned out to be evangelists from a nearby church) but my mood was an authentic reflection of how skilfully the play captures the cat-and-mouse psychological obsessions that fuel Patricia Highsmith’s original novel. The stakes remain high throughout the rapid-fire ninety minutes, yet Mark Leipacher’s excellent adaptation also manages to relieve the tension with high doses of humour.
Tom Ripley, a needy, nervous chancer is approached by Herbert – the wealthy father of a half-remembered acquaintance – to travel to Italy to bring back his wayward son, Dickie. Ever the opportunist, Ripley smells a quick buck and agrees. We follow Ripley to Italy, and beyond, on his murderous journey as he befriends, covets and becomes his new friend. The plot twists and turns as fast as the cast switch characters: a whirlwind – at the centre of which is the talented Christopher Hughes, whose Ripley never leaves the stage. Hughes gives an outstanding rendition of the chameleon character, slipping back and forth from obsequious buffoonery to manipulatively gaining the upper hand; all the while looking over his shoulder.
Although his is the pivotal role, he wouldn’t function without the precise and stylish, level playing support from the whole ensemble cast. Moments of physical theatre suspend the action while giving us a clear insight into the psychology of the characters. Shadowy gangsters in gabardines and fedoras become Ripley’s conscience, while in the later scenes Ripley’s moral compass is steered by the ghost of Dickie – a magnetic performance from Christopher York. Cries of “Cut!” occasionally interrupt a scene so it can be rewound and replayed with a different outcome: highlighting the fact that Ripley’s fate is governed by indecision, rather than a calculating criminal mind.
A large white raised platform, sunk in the centre, dominates Frances Norburn’s set design, behind, through and under which the characters appear and disappear. You never quite know where the next surprise is coming from. One of the biggest surprises, though, is the size (or rather smallness) of the cast. Jason Eddy, Vincent Jerome, Natasha Rickman, Emma Jay Thomas and Marcello Walton complement the two protagonists with their multi-rolling giving the illusion of a much larger company.
This is a bold, thought-provoking and inventive interpretation, coated in a dark tale but chock-a-block full of neat little treats. Cut down in size to fit the scheduling constraints of the VAULT Festival it loses nothing of Highsmith’s thrilling drama. On the contrary, the forced focus distils the narrative into a beautifully condensed and refined production.