The Dance of Death

Hilton McRae and Lindsay Duncan

The Dance of Death by August Strindberg – Arcola Theatre, London

Strindberg’s The Dance of Death has a reputation, encouraged by its title and the troubled life of the author, as a full-blown exercise in turn-of-the-century Scandinavian nihilism. This is unfair. The National Theatre’s ’60s production with Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan revealed its blackly comic potential, pursued even further up by Ian McKellen and Frances De La Tour in Sean Mathias’ 2003 London production. Now Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae reveal the full depths of its ambiguity in production that is funny and strangely touching. Directed by the Arcola’s own Mehmet Ergen, the couple – married in real life – interact with a naturalness that takes the edge off their barbed attacks on one another, even as they push one another further and further and, almost, over the edge.

McRae, as aging, disaffected Army captain Edgar, is fragile and thin-skinned but, crucially, also self-aware. He slides incredibly easily into the role of the grumpy old man, just as Lindsay Duncan’s Alice deploys her frustrated performing talents (her stage career, she claims, was ended by Edgar) in vamping playing dark games with Edgar, and then her cousin Katrin, with a glee discernible through her unnatural composure. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation gender-swaps the role of Kurt, the outsider who unwittingly acts as the grist in the marital mill. It’s an interesting move, and fits the dynamics for the most part very well. Emily Bruni plays her as virtually a nun, dressed in black and engaged in charitable work, both practical in managing domestic crises and hopelessly hidebound. Her sexual move on Alice is all the most wild and shocking as a result. Lenkiewicz also updates the language, including plenty of swearing which gives the conflict a new credibility.

The treat in this production, though, is watching Duncan and McRae up close, applying their skills to the portrayal of a relationship. Beginning and ending with a game of cards, it is clear that these two know how to survive and how to live together. The way they interact with outsiders could easily, however, give quite the opposite impression. They bait one another with practised ease, and make dramatic claims about cruelty as soon as the other leaves the room. But it is others they are cruel to because, while they might not mean what they say, their self-centred way of living poisons others. No-one, however isolated they might imagine themselves, can separate themselves from their effect on others. This is the play’s true darkness, but the way in which Edgar and Alice very nearly go too far to retreat – particularly Edgar, claiming he has filed for a divorce – is unavoidably hilarious.

This is a high quality staging, featuring two seriously fine performers who absolutely inhabit their roles. A touring production in partnership with theatres in Bath, Cambridge, Northampton and Oxford, Ergen has reworked a classic to reveal it as fresh and current, and given it a dream cast. It is definitely the kind of theatre we need: not easy answers, no escape, just life in all its darkness, frustration, extremity and glory.

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