Having 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. Why 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.
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.