Anna Chancellor is an actress clearly unafraid to descend into the trenches. Take her performance in the Donmar Warehouse production of August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater through May 16. Over the course of the 90-minute psychoromantic drama, Chancellor variously jumps her husband, finds her sexual advances rebuffed, rebuffs the sexual advances of another suitor and at one point ends up on her back, skirt over her head. It is not a role for those concerned with either the state of their knickers or their ego.
“I think that [director] Alan Rickman probably chose me because he thought that it wasn’t going to be hard for me to play in that area. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do,” she says with a laugh, seated in the theater’s cafe, her student daughter, Poppy, listening in a few tables away. “I think it’s slightly part of my nature — when I was young, I was a model, I used to sit naked for artists. I just wasn’t shy in that way.”
“Always naked!” interjects Poppy to her mum’s amusement. “You would take your clothes off and swim in a river.”
There is no nudity in “Creditors,” at least not of the physical kind. Rather, the play thrusts its three characters into an emotional striptease of the roughest timbre that eventually leaves them all in a state of utter vulnerability. Chancellor is Tekla, a writer who has come to a Swedish seaside hotel with her younger husband, Adolph, whom she has in a complete psychological and erotic choke hold. Adolph’s friend, Gustav, attempts to extricate him from his amorous pains, though he has his own ulterior motives. When Gustav’s manipulations are put into action, the trio dissolves into utter chaos.
“I don’t think Strindberg means that as reality, but somewhere in us we have all been to quite dark places in relationships. Because a lot of those feelings are within every child: extreme jealousy, cruelty,” explains Chancellor, 45, in her deep, throaty posh accent. “I don’t go to the cinema because I can’t bear all the violence. This violence is closer to the bone, whereas somehow we romanticize the violence of men with guns killing each other and thinking it’s cool. Strindberg is not thinking this is cool.”
He also, in Chancellor’s eyes, is not thinking of his female lead in negative terms, though many a critic characterizes his works as misogynistic.
“I don’t think Strindberg can really be labeled that because he’s written a part for a woman in her middle age that goes through every emotion. Not many playwrights gave somebody center stage like that,” says Chancellor. “Women are ignored by the time they reach 45, 50. Because that’s what we do to women: We bury them; we think they’re uninteresting; we think they’ve lost their sex appeal. All us girls know that we’re heading into some sort of volcanic ash soon.”
Judging from Chancellor’s own trajectory, it seems an unlikely scenario: The actress’ path is a case study in perseverance. The youngest in an upper-crust family in Somerset, England, she was first drawn to acting as a seven-year-old at a Devon boarding school. She moved to London at 16 to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where she became unexpectedly pregnant with Poppy. What ensued was a rough period of struggling that Chancellor credits for catalyzing her current career.
“In order to survive, I had to work to look after my child. Otherwise, I don’t know that I would have necessarily had the confidence to be an actress, funnily enough,” she recalls.
Films like 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” in which she played Duckface and for which she is still recognized, helped dispel such thoughts. And Chancellor has appeared in all manner of medium and genre. If one were to search for a common thread, it would probably be a certain provocation and fearlessness.
“I’m lucky because I think people do approach me to play those parts that other people find a bit intimidating. I find I tend to play rather unpleasant women, because I think I have a talent to humanize a demon,” she says, adding wryly: “But I would like to play a sort of innocent, stupid part. Or a silly billy. Or someone really boring.”