“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.
“through this richly observed production it’s poignant to realise the heady positions of influence reached by Benn”
It was occasionally said of Tony Benn that he could make something you passionately disagree with sound perfectly reasonable. The charm with which he expresses his controversial convictions has been fulsomely archived in thousands of hours of recordings, nine volumes of diaries not to mention his own one man shows. So, Andy Barrett’s one man play Tony’s Last Tape imagining how the last of Benn’s home recording sessions might have proceeded, sits in a curious space, fictionalising the well-documented. Commissioned by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2015, a year after Benn’s death, it is likely to have originated as a homage and Rachael Jacks’ detailed set design sustains the theory. A loving reconstruction of Benn’s study, featuring a desk covered in papers, pipes and an array of recording devices is surrounded by boxes, cabinets and bookshelves laden with memoirs and projects, all awash with nostalgic blue-yellow light (Martin Curtis).
The portrayal of the doddery 88-year-old himself, in slippers, dressing gown and Poll Tax demo tee-shirt, is affectionate and masterfully delivered. Philip Bretherton manages to capture Benn’s contorted splay of elbows and thumbs as he starts his pipe, the finger-wagging and chin-jutting, to perfection. The script just as skilfully renders Benn’s vocal style, a combination of moral certainty and loquacity. For those unlikely to find time to listen to hours of original ‘Benn tapes’ the play provides a handy biography. Running at seventy five minutes it fits in details of Benn’s private life, the loss of his brother in wartime and his wife to cancer amongst a comprehensive range of his greatest hits, career achievements, memories and meetings by means of an apparently rambling but supremely well-constructed narrative.
Giles Croft’s direction simplifies and amplifies his subject, sometimes reducing him to a sardonic figure, other times hectoring. While it’s possible to suggest that Benn may have ended up privately disillusioned in this way, the script itself doesn’t. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing show; by accident or design, these performances coincide with daily vilifications of Benn’s modern-day counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn, which add topical resonance to the audience experience. The parallels are unavoidable in their principled dislike of the EU and as well as their subversive style. Indeed, Corbyn was involved in the incident cited in the play where the pair ‘vandalised’ the Houses of Parliament chapel with a plaque commemorating suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.
It remains to be seen whether Corbyn ends up like Benn, a National Treasure, but through this richly observed production it’s poignant to realise the heady positions of influence reached by Benn, despite being reviled.