July 26, 2018

Who’s afraid of August Strindberg?

by August Strindberg.
A new version by Duncan Graham
State Theatre Company South Australia.
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
July 24. Tickets: $32- $61. Bookings 131 246 or online
Duration 1 hour 45 minutes (no interval)
Until August 5.

Asked why he had a portrait of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg above his writing desk, Henrik Ibsen said : “He is my mortal enemy, he must hang there and observe everything I write.”

Strindberg’s febrile, hallucinatory drama is unfiltered, often brutishly irrational, and even more disturbing and problematic now than it was in 1885. Its misogynist fervour, sexual compulsion and sado-masochistic dynamic anticipated Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life by 20 years, but its chaotic, paranoid “truth” also needs re-framing for the contemporary stage.

For this reason, Duncan Graham’s outstanding adaptation of Creditors re-calibrates the questions of marriage, patriarchy and gender perception in ways that re-energise the play. It is as though Graham has recognised that it was Strindberg who had invented Edward Albee and used the black comic patter of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to launch his version.

Creditors is a bitter comedy about Tekla, a sexually emancipated woman tangling with her infatuated, insecure younger husband, Adolph, and stalked by her rejected older, former partner, the domineering chauvinist, Gustav.
With its fiduciary imagery of transactional marital relationships, notions of profit and loss, amounts owing (and, especially, interest carried forward) Creditors explores the patterns of dependency, enmeshment, and emotional and cultural debt which develop and fester. Age differences and gender imbalances also loom large.

Director David Mealor has carefully assembled this lucid and highly engaging production. Ailsa Paterson’s set, depicting a luxury resort in Noosa, features three doors for farce, wooden decking, orange divans and a sea view, all lusciously lit by Mark Pennington. The music, by Quentin Grant, insinuates unobtrusively with trickling Satie-like piano, flourishes of cello and riffs of baritone sax.

Graham, Mealor, and the actors use brisk, satiric comedy to give fluidity and momentum to the production, off-setting the rancid hatred that is never far from the surface in Strindberg. The effect is not to muffle the impact, but to give clarity and proportion to the various points of view.

The performances are excellent. From the opening scene, Matt Crook, as the painter-turned-sculptor, Adolph, creates a brilliantly funny, agitated, increasingly anguished portrait of the artist as a young husband.

Peter Kowitz anchors the narrative as the reptilian Gustav. Calculating, shrewd, often funny, he carries some of Strindberg’s most repellent ideas, as well as reminding us of the seductive power of the prankster and the charismatic intellectual. As Tekla, Caroline Craig memorably holds her position, against the manipulative dissembling of the two suitors, as a woman claiming her own entitlement. It is deeply satisfying to watch all three actors in such close accord.

“Who’s afraid of August Strindberg ?” The Australian, July 27, 2018, p.17.

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