In the world of August Strindberg, where everyone is always armed and dangerous, it takes only 90 minutes to destroy a marriage. That’s the time required to perform the thrilling new interpretation of “Creditors,” which opened Tuesday night at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When this impeccably acted three-character drama has put the last of those minutes to cruel and careful use, you’re likely to feel you’ve had the breath knocked out of you. Despite yourself, you’ll probably be smiling too.
Pity and terror may have been what Aristotle demanded a tragedy elicit from its audience. But Strindberg, who held to the courage of his perversity, tweaked that formula like no other dramatist before him in his naturalistic plays from the late 1880s. Laughter and terror are what’s incited by his chronicles of to-the-death struggles between men and women, a hard laughter that both cuts and heightens the pain of your response.
It is unusual these days for a production to invoke that paradoxical response as thoroughly and skillfully as this one, an import from the invaluable Donmar Warehouse in London, directed with surgical exactitude by Alan Rickman. (An example of how Strindberg’s tragicomedy can slip into camp was provided earlier this season in the Broadway production of “After Miss Julie,” which starred Sienna Miller.) Presented in a new translation by David Greig that brings out the feral poetry in Strindberg’s prose, this portrait of a fatal sexual triangle is both coldly objective and scathingly passionate.
Both sides of that equation are fully evident in the opening scene. The setting is the lounge of a Swedish seaside hotel, and as rendered by Ben Stones it’s a disquietingly sterile place, as white as a hospital operating room and saturated in unnaturally even natural light (designed by Howard Harrison).
Just how appropriate this environment is for the action that follows becomes clear with the entrance of Gustav (Owen Teale), a composed man of tidy mien and measured speech, and the younger Adolph (Tom Burke), who has a limp and an open, anguished expression. Having met only recently, they are in the middle of a conversation about the state of Adolph’s marriage, and the older man questions and counsels the younger with professorial patience and persistence.
Adolph, an artist, says that he has given himself so completely to his older wife, a novelist, that he has no identity of his own left. Or that’s the conclusion that Gustav leads his new acquaintance to. The images used in describing the marital connection are biological, and Gustav’s diagnoses are literally, and sometimes grotesquely, medical.
It soon develops that under the paternal guise of a sort of psychological surgeon, here to cut away an unhealthy love as if were a tumor, Gustav is systematically poisoning Adolph by suggestion. At first, the dialogue has a breezy, almost Wildean wit. “That’s why one ought not to marry anyone one hasn’t been already married to — at least once,” says Gustav, though without a trace of an epigrammatist’s smirk.
As the conversation continues and deepens, the men’s interaction becomes increasingly physical, and there are moments when Gustav fastens his body onto Adolph’s, ostensibly to offer strength but looking like a succubus. “Life offers a thousand means by which we can hurt each other,” says Gustav, with a musing detachment that belies our awareness that he is a master of such means.
The missing member of the triangle, the wife, makes a late entrance into this laboratory of human feelings, though we’ve seen her naked image in a provocative, harshly ambivalent sculpture by Adolph. Tekla (Anna Chancellor) wears her strength more flamboyantly than Gustav does, and her hold over her boyish husband is still firm enough to bend him back to her own will, at least partly. Adolph leaves the room angrily, allowing Gustav — who has been waiting, hidden — to demonstrate anew his particular talent for hypnosis.
On one level “Creditors” isn’t so far from the classic French farce of infidelity. And it features some genuinely funny moments in that vein. “I feel you’re trying to steal my soul,” Tekla says breathlessly in the middle of a horizontal clinch with Gustav. “There is no soul,” Gustav says. Tekla, good free-thinker that she is, answers in a rush, “I know, I know, I know.”
But if these people are on occasion funny, it’s because they’re so deadly — and I mean deadly — serious. Only Gustav has a sense of irony about who he is and what he’s doing, and it’s not a pleasurable perspective. Though Strindberg is usually regarded as a painter of vampire women who suck the life out of their male prey, “Creditors” offers a view of the human predator that has, one might say, gender parity.
And what a lonely view it is. Relationships, even (no, especially) those of love and friendship, incur feelings of indebtedness. And debt breeds a resentment that festers and a need to break free of obligations. The characters speak with ostensible self-detachment of modern theories of psychology, which reduce people to genetically programmed animals, bereft of free will. What’s so killing about “Creditors” is how completely they embody those theories.
Mr. Rickman, best known as an actor, has steered his ensemble into making us believe that for each of these unhappy people character is fate, that they couldn’t act other than they do. Even more than Strindberg’s later “Dance of Death,” “Creditors” is a template for a kind of take-no-prisoners drama that would flourish in the 20th century, practiced by writers as different as Eugene O’Neill,Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. But it’s rawer and harsher than anything that would follow.
The cast here couldn’t be better in playing out the shifting power games that give the play its structure, keeping us in their grip even as the script slides into the devices and denouements of old-fashioned melodrama. Germaine Greer, in a program note, writes that the characters in “Creditors” are mythic archetypes. But what’s so compelling about these performances is how specifically defined each one is.
If Adolph is a sort of tabula rasa, to be written on by more experienced hands, the emotionally translucent Mr. Burke guarantees that this blank page has an achingly individual fleshly texture and shape. Ms. Chancellor’s Tekla is a magnificent amalgam of vanity, imperiousness and just enough lingering self-doubt to be taken advantage of. Mr. Teale calmly and devastatingly embodies a man who has drained himself of all feelings but one: the thirst for vengeance, to be top dog once again. And in Strindberg’s primal jungle of life, that’s really the only feeling that matters.
By August Strindberg, in a new version by David Greig; directed by Alan Rickman; sets by Ben Stones; costumes by Fotini Dimou; lighting by Howard Harrison; music and sound by Adam Cork. A Donmar Warehouse production, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At the Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100. Through May 16. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. WITH: TomBurke (Adolph), Owen Teale (Gustav) and Anna Chancellor (Tekla).