Saturday 8th June 2013, matinée
Having seen August Strindberg’s ‘Dance of Death’ in 2003 with Ian McKellen and Frances De La Tour, we were not expecting to revisit it again quite so soon. This is not a play we were desperate to see again. However, the lure of seeing Michael Pennington in the small space of the Gate Theatre was hard to resist, and in this case we would be getting the opportunity to see the rarely performed ‘sequel’ thrown in.
As well as being an extraordinary actor, Michael Pennington has written extensively about dramatists, particularly Chekhov and Shakespeare, and in ‘A pocket guide to Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov’, co-written with theatre director Stephen Unwin, he has this to say about the play:
“‘The Dance of Death’ is deeply flawed, aesthetically and dramatically as well as morally and spiritually…….Both plays [parts one and two] are very hard to pull off in the theatre, above all because the balance between morbid gloom and satirical wit is a fine one to strike. But they have a striking theatricality, which when acted and directed well, can be riveting to watch.”
In this new version by Howard Brenton, there has been quite a bit of judicious cutting, to create a one-act drama out of the original, followed by ‘part two’, which is more like an epilogue, and was thought to have been written by Strindberg to please his publisher, who thought the original too gloomy. Well, we can’t say it does much to lighten the mood, but it’s all relative. Set on an island in Sweden, where the central character Edgar is the artillery captain of the garrison, the main drama surrounds his dystopian relationship with his wife Alice, to whom he has been married for nearly 30 years. Both are misanthropic and self-absorbed and unable to break away from the mutual misery to which they appear to be addicted. Into this milieu comes Kurt, Edgar’s childhood friend, newly appointed master of quarantine after a long absence in America. Seeing her distress, he tries to help Alice, and, as we might expect with Strindberg, things end badly. The second half will be of interest to Strindberg completists, but it is more of a curiosity piece with little to add to the drama, and we can’t imagine the experiment being repeated.
Director Tom Littler has given us a precise and economical production which serves the plays well. He uses the small space of the Gate very effectively to add to the claustrophobia, and with designer James Perkins has created a real sense of the sea on the doorstep, conveying the physical sense of isolation as well as the psychological ‘siege mentally’ that seems to have invaded the main characters. The sound of the sea makes a powerful start to the drama, but by the second half, where there is already less to work with, the sound effects and use of tableaux to break up the scenes are less effective. Having said that the direction is pacey and clear.
It’s hard to find new superlatives for Michael Pennington’s acting, so we won’t try. All we can say is that his ability to inhabit his characters is uncanny. Strindberg describes Edgar as a ‘refined demon’, and Pennington seems to have followed his instructions to the letter. His obsession with ‘obliteration’ and need to feed off the lives of others is horrifying in its banality, and there is no room for irony or self-referential indulgence. Yet Pennington does bring out the unsettling humour of Strindberg’s drama, which so acutely observes the petty cruelties of a dysfunctional marriage. Linda Marlowe keeps us guessing as the ex-actress Alice. She may not be treading the boards any more, but Alice is certainly an accomplished drama-queen, flamboyant even behind closed doors, and flitting from despair to flippancy in an instant. She brings a hollow, brittle quality to the character which explains her inability to get away from Edgar despite having her eyes open throughout. As Kurt, Christopher Ravenscroft has the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ character, a lamb amongst the wolves, without being overwhelmed by the other two. A strong presence throughout, he completes the triangle with earnestness and quiet dignity, and his decline is all the more touching for it. Eleanor Wyld manages to bring some intelligence and spark to her portrayal of Judith, the daughter who is in danger of being brought up as a cold ‘heartbreaker’ by her mother.
This is an accomplished production, and whilst it cannot obliterate the flaws in the original dramas, there is much to enjoy in the performances, the tight direction, and a setting which really conveys the ‘poison’ and claustrophobia which the play so often refers to.