I sat behind Peter Higgs at the recent staging of Strindberg’s Creditors at Edinburgh’s Lyceum. Higgs has the sort of bizarrely engorged crania that you might expect of a physics genius. Encircling this rather heavy head was a little ring of grey hair which made him look like the nuclei of some distinguished, elderly atom. I presumed that, after a life devoted to collision, he’d turned to the theatre for some light relief. It had not delivered. At the end of the play, using every bit of the big Boson-bearing brain, he turned to his wife and said; ‘Nasty!’.
He wasn’t wrong. Strindberg’s most ‘mature’ work is a biting, nasty, squalid exposition of human duplicitousness and frailty. It is, rightly (in my view), regarded as one of the masterworks of late nineteenth-century naturalist drama. But it is grim viewing.
I suspect, though, that Peter Higgs’ objection wasn’t to the content of the play (he probably wouldn’t have turned up if it was), but to one puzzling aspect of its performance; Lil Peep’s music was played during the scene breaks.
Now, Strindberg was a misogynist. So was Lil Peep. The directorial desiderata, I guess, was to draw attention to the fact that misogyny isn’t just confined to the work of long-dead Swedish literary figures but remains a popular past-time amongst the youth of Malmo.
But the swift removal of hearing-aids when the lyrics; “Girls make me drink / Girls make me think / Girls like it on my dick”, were blasted into the auditorium is testament to so much of what makes some contemporary theatre-going excruciating.
Attempting to make a subversive point about the text that you’re producing doesn’t work if you raise ticket prices year-on-year (now reaching an eye-watering UK average of £25 a seat). The only audience that will be attracted are stuffy old people and stuffier middle class lit students (yours truly). Changing our minds doesn’t change much.
The other problem with this is that it isn’t an attempt to modernise the text, but to draw attention to its atavisms. Its not unlike pointing to an elderly scientist and calling them bald when you yourself are genetically disposed to early hair loss. For example, the misogyny of Creditors is so obvious that it is occasionally funny to a contemporary audience: highlight that. Soundcloud trap, for all its merits, is not adequately equipped to present an ironic contemporary take on Strindberg – a Tony-award winning director should be.
The recent psychedelic-sixties, song-and-dance routine Twelfth Night at the Lyceum is a fantastic example of this. The bendy-gendered alternative sexuality that is just underneath the surface of the original play rang out. It was an enlivened and hysterically funny production that rebirthed the text, rather than wishing it had never been born at all. After all, there must be something of value in a play for a director to want to put it on. Just giving it a good, right-on, post-modern kicking didn’t impress me or Dr Higgs.