Arcola Theatre, London – until 23 July 2022
Last week brought extraordinary political events that were probably more compelling than any fictional scenario which a dramatist could have invented. There was Boris Johnson, playing out his own Greek/Shakespearean tragedy – although perhaps it is more ours than his; I eagerly await James Graham’s future take down of the whole sorry mess.
Wrenching myself away from a real life blood letting which would put Titus Andronicus in the shade I headed to a theatre to see a play from the classical repertoire that went on to influence many of the heavyweights of contemporary drama. August Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death from 1900 has been credited with prefiguring the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and most notably provided a template for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? However, in its latest incarnation at the Arcola in Hackney, which is the culmination of a tour started in May, I was forcibly reminded of the dynamic evoked by Noel Coward’s Private Lives – but with far fewer laughs.
This may well be due to the presence of Lindsay Duncan, one of the most celebrated actors to play Coward’s cynical and spiky character Amanda, who here is locked in a marriage that resembles a battleground not able to tear herself away from the situation in which she finds herself. And that situation mostly deteriorates as the narrative unfolds.
Alice (Duncan) and her husband, disillusioned army captain Edgar (real life Mr LD, Hilton McRae) are rapidly approaching their pearl anniversary (30 years) and find themselves washed up – in both senses – on a remote Swedish island where they spend them time goading and carping at each other and, as modern parlance would have it, pushing buttons.
There are some drily funny moments in this opening section and Duncan, in particular, can make this stuff land with the sort of precision which she showed in Hansard and numerous other roles. And that’s the issue, because it really doesn’t seem that much of a challenge for her, though it is always a pleasure to witness her skills. McRae’s delivery is rather more lugubrious, and I didn’t fully get the sense of domestic tyranny, menace and even madness which should pervade the character. They are both eminently watchable, but I wasn’t dazzled.
The dynamic between the couple is interrupted by the arrival of a figure from their past who has come to the island to be Matron of Quarantine. For where the couple live has been designated as a plague island – how topically relevant; thus, the characters’ limited world focuses on physical, mental and spiritual alienation. Soon it is not long before Katrin is sucked in to the intricate game playing which will only end when death inevitably arrives. Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who is credited with adapting Strindberg’s original, has foisted an unnecessary gender swap on the narrative for this third role by turning cousin Kurt into cousin Katrin (Emily Bruni) though what that has achieved other than being able to introduce a note of lesbian vampirism it is difficult to say.
That last is a strange moment bursting out in a piece which generally aims at being naturalistic – the set by Grace Smart definitely looks the business. Here and there, though, it flirts with expressionistic interludes such as when the Captain performs a jerky marionette style dance which leads to him dropping unconscious to the floor or death itself turns up in the form of a passing villager.
She stops to close the door which has blown open in a storm (as you do) – even death isn’t going to help these characters to escape their torment. While these are not inventions of either Lenkiewicz or director Mehmet Ergen they tend to jar with the overall tone. At the same time they inject a bit of spark into a production which I otherwise found curiously flat and not particularly inspiring. Perhaps it was just a day on which the real life blockbuster goings on at Westminster couldn’t be topped. And as I finish writing, and after much prevarication, there has just been an announcement of a significant resignation – Dance Of Death indeed!