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Plays

Armchair Theatre: The Creditors (Thames, 1972)

Kenneth Haigh, Anthony Corlan in The Conspirators, 1970Having just watched Philip Saville’s production for ITV of his own adaptation of Strindberg’s drama The Creditors, I am wondering if there is any production in the history of the television stage play more mis-judged than this one. Doubtless they are out there in the archives, but this Armchair Theatre offering from 1972 is possibly in a class of its own when it comes to productions that are uneasy, under-achieved and – simply – bad. Anthony Corlan, Susannah York, Kenneth Haigh in The ConspiratorsWhy then was I viewing it – especially since my recent research has been focussed on earliest years of stage plays on television? Well, it had popped through my letter-box after I had purchased the recently released Armchair Theatre Volume 2 two-DVD set from network (only available until 9 March 2012). With Susannah York and Kenneth Haigh in the cast, and with the invariably innovative Saville directing, it seemed at the very least intriguing.

Philip Saville directing The Conspirators

Strindberg’s play was first staged in 1890, and in the theatre it runs for some 90 minutes. Here, Saville has compressed it into 50 minutes or so, and also updated the setting to, supposedly, 1954. But the design, which since the main space is an artist’s studio, includes numerous supposed artworks that are perhaps best described as eclectic. Ditto the furnishings, many of the objects being a good deal more modern – including the anachronistic mural photograph of the initially absent Tekla (played by a radiant Susannah York, just after The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Battle of Britain (1969)).

Tekla is now married to the neurotic young artist Adolph (Anthony Corlan, who never begins to approach a believable moment) but she was previously hitched to Gustave (Kenneth Haigh), who has taken advantage of Tekla being away to insinuate himself – anonymously – into a friendship with Adolph. Gustave, it emerges, is bent on revenge for his humiliation when Tekla left him – and his chosen method is to destroy her new relationship by making each party suspicious of, indeed paranoid about, the other. The absurdities of the simple plotting (when does Adolph realise Gustave’s identity?) are heightened by the archaic, formal language (there is much talk of obsession and possession, and of the battles between male and female) – and these clash disastrously with the soap-style performances and harshly overlit studio ‘look’ of television drama at the time. The play, we are assured, was transmitted on 10 October 1970 (I can find no reviews), but I am surprised that it reached the airwaves.

Forty years on, its interest lies in watching Saville exploring and exploiting the technical potential of studio drama. Designer Fred Pusey gave him one large inter-connected set and Saville’s cameras probe each and every corner, moving through walls, peering into a matte-created keyhole and at one point using split-screen to underline the aural ‘voyeurism’ of the drama. One lengthy shot is also taken from a camera that is almost directly overhead the protagonists. But the appreciation of such bravura use of the studio space is only a partial recompense for the other problems of this truly eccentric television stage play.

Strindberg never achieved the small-screen popularity of his contemporary Ibsen, but Creditors has been produced for British television on one other occasion. Suzanne Bertish, Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent played it in 1988 for director Geoffrey Sax in a Channel 4 version of a staging that had originally been seen at London’s Almeida Theatre. The time will come when I shall seek out this later version to compare with the Thames production of 1970.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Armchair Theatre: The Creditors (Thames, 1972)

  1. The reason why you haven’t been able to find any reviews is probably because the date on the box is a misprint, and the production was actually transmitted on 10 October 1972!

    Having seen the last production at the Donmar in 2008, I can report that Creditors is a mad play in any version, however ostensibly sensible an interpretation.

    I haven’t got up to Creditors yet, but I have seen the first three plays in this set. Both the Roger Marshall and Douglas Livingstone plays are tremendous, using what seem like small-scale stories to show characters at moments of crisis in their lives, in a way that could only be achieved in a studio multi-camera setting. As with the first set, I’m left wondering why people go on and on about Plays For Today from this period, while routinely ignoring the contemporaneous Thames Armchair Theatres, which attained a lot wider popularity. Perhaps because they were generally more modest in their ambitions, perhaps because of the usual neglect of (non-cult) popular drama in television studies…

    Posted by Billy Smart | 1 October 2011, 9:05 pm
      • Thanks, Billy, not least for the correction about the transmission date – although I still don’t think there were any mainstream reviews at the time. Your thoughts about the critical status of Play for Today versus Armchair Theatre are really interesting – and the review by “Frank” that you link to is well worth reading. In fact, while critical, he is rather more measured than me – and he mentions the discordant electronic music that I meant to discuss also. This is particularly prominent towards the end of Act One, but is entirely unmotivated within the drama. There’s also no credit to a composer in the closing credits.

        Posted by John Wyver | 1 October 2011, 9:25 pm
  2. I’ve now seen it. D’you know, I think its really rather good! Its certainly a play that’s enhanced by being cut to 50 minutes, and the Saville/ Thames style really suits the material. The question is if its possible to swallow Strindberg at his madest and most reprehensible.

    I can remember that when I saw it at the Donmar in 2008, the audience decided to laugh from the beginning. Initially, this jarred a bit with me as I thought that it implied a certain superiority over the play, laughter as a signifier of comprehending what they were seeing, and a reluctance to be genuinely surprised. After about five minutes, when the register of the scene an its performance was clear to me, then I realised that laughter was actually the most appropriate response. The premise is kind of ludicrous, and – naturalist classic or not – not something that one can interpret as plausible unless you have an unusually great ability to suspend disbelief.

    The combination of (cluttered, bohemian, bright) design, shot from contorted angles and through stuff, performed by actors with particular animation and relish often seen in close-ups in the Armchair Theatre version strikes me as exactly the right way to interpret a play that attempts to ensnare the audience into a world of crazed jealousy and loathing. I’d imagine that the 1988 version will be a bit duller, even if Ian McDiarmid starts skipping in it.

    The music sounds like Tristram Cary to me.

    Posted by Billy Smart | 9 October 2011, 12:07 pm

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