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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Donmar at the Trafalgar Studios


  Ph: Simon Kane

August Strindberg would have been very at home with today’s confessional culture. This caustic capricious intellectual plundered not only his own unsuccessful marriages for writing purposes (his novel "The Cloister" and drama "A Dream Play" came from his first and second marital disasters, respectively), but also, here, that of his sister Anna. In Dance of Death we see the playwright as vulture, ripping the flesh off a union that’s approaching 25 years and revealing it in all its leering skeletal reality. No wonder Anna’s husband, Hugo Philp, flung the script in the fire and refused to talk to Strindberg for four years.
Yet though splenetic marital meltdown may not seem the ideal way to celebrate the festive period, Titas Halder’s chamber production proves refreshingly and brutally funny. Famously, Dance of Death has inspired works including Death of a Salesman and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but here we can also see the man dubbed Sweden’s Shakespeare looking back to Much Ado’s Beatrice and Benedick. As the play opens, Indira Varma’s Alice sits as rigidly as a mantelpiece ornament against an upright piano covered with dust, looking balefully around her. Appropriately for a play that was almost called "The Vampire," there’s a feeling of the living dead hanging over this setting – yet within moments the bitter banter starts up and so does the laughter.
Conor McPherson, whose The Weir dazzled audiences on both side of the Atlantic in the late 90s, is responsible for this latest adaptation. As a writer whose brilliance is partly attributable to his unfashionable ability to reflect psychological states in supernatural beliefs, he is an ideal candidate for animating a marriage so haunted by the sense of damnation. When one character talks of "the corpses screaming in the walls," it hits the convulsing nerve of this relationship. Yet McPherson also provides the laconic humour. When Alice relates the incident where Edgar supposedly pushed her into the sea, her husband’s response is, "I thought you might try to pull that old sausage out of the sack."
The evening’s bilious charm is due in no small part to performances that parade on skewers the dictum that "familiarity breeds contempt." As the captain, Kevin R McNally displays the wounded rage of a man who believes his ideals raise him above all his peers and cannot understand why he’s still out in the cold. The silent suspicion that if he concedes the professional and emotional errors he has made the whole of his life will disintegrate to dust underpins his sabre-sharp delivery. As Kurt, the cousin who introduced Edgar and Alice, Daniel Lapaine is his perfect foil. He evokes the blend of optimistic honour and naiveté that makes him initially seem like Alice’s salvation but eventually reveals him to be the couple’s latest toy.

It is, however, Varma who steals the evening, as she shows that the hatred that seems to be eating her up is also her nourishment. Like all three of Strindberg’s wives, she is clearly much younger than her spouse, but she is no innocent victim, and her spiky game playing is the source of much of the production’s comedy. Strindberg has been castigated for his misogyny, but his talent as a playwright lay in his acknowledgement of human complexity. We realize it would be too simplistic to subject any of the characters either to pity or condemnation. Instead the tide of black humour keeps rising so that, by the end, we realize, death is the biggest joke of all.


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