Theatre – The Dance of Death

Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre
Written By: August Strindberg
Directed By: Judy Davis

The Dance of Death, translated by May-Brit Akerholt, is one of August Strindberg’s most produced plays, although at the time of its writing, 1900, a Swedish censor thought it too “disagreeable” to be performed. While the play is darkly pessimistic, under Judy Davis’s direction Strindberg’s dismemberment of a marriage relationship is ferociously entertaining.    

The off-key, falsely cheerful mechanical piano that initiates the performance seems insanely inappropriate as the despondent figures of artillery Captain Edgar (Colin Friels) and ex-actress wife, Alice (Pamela Rabe), emerge from the semi-darkness. She languishes in melodramatic style on the sofa, but ready to pounce; he slumps on a piano stool, his posture at odds with his military (and still spurred boots), ready to wound, always wound up.

Their conversation is more like sparring than talking, and we know as they exchange insults that this is a routine scenario, given extra bite by their approaching silver wedding anniversary. Rather than celebrate, Alice thinks it would be more fitting to hide their long years of marital misery, to which Edgar responds, “Oh come, Alice. We’ve had fun”. There follows a significant pause, as we await a sign of former happiness, an expectation undercut by his, “Now and then. And besides, it will soon be over. We’ll soon be dead …”

The circular performance area is no happy domestic circle but a bastille cut off from society by a blood-red moat littered with the debris of the couple’s previous encounters. We note the violence with which Alice kicks the dining chairs, as if intent on destroying the evidence of any former domestic aspiration and the arrogance with which Edgar struts about his “home”,  a former jail, that imprisons them both in the poisonous environment their mutual hatred has created.

The sources of their frustration and resentment are ordinary enough. Alice has given up an acting career for marriage to a man 10 years her senior. Edgar has not received the promotion within the military he had anticipated. Alice has not had the lifestyle she had anticipated and Edgar has suffered the humiliation of not being able to provide it. However, one of the strengths of this production is the vividness with which it renders the emotional and psychological impact of these disappointments upon the lives of Alice and Edgar through the disorienting symbolist stage setting.

Their distorted emotions have not only either destroyed or alienated their children but also affect all who might step into their world. The maid (Giorgia Avery) is the ultimate in slovenliness and disrespect, and we are presented with a test case of their toxicity in the form of Kurt, Alice’s cousin. Newly appointed Master of Quarantine, he pays them a visit, a picture-perfect example of an aspiring government administrator dressed for a formal dinner, but, ironically, he is infected by the polluted atmosphere. As he becomes a diversion for them both – a lover for Alice, a whipping boy for Edgar – he loses himself. As Alice plays the vamp (oh, that scarlet velvet dress!) to Kurt, he turns into a vampire, and as Edgar torments him where he is most vulnerable, Kurt torments Alice. A residue of common sense remains, and Kurt escapes before he is completely cannibalised by his hosts.

After Kurt’s departure, the two resume the postures in which we first found them, somewhat more satisfied at having feasted on his turmoil. Some things are clearer. Central to, and a highlight of, the play, is the crazy dance Edgar performs for Kurt, accompanied by Alice on the piano. He whirls in a frenzy waving his sword … it could kill him since we know his heart is weak … he falls.

What will Alice do? She has so long yearned for his death, will she at last be able to dance on his grave? She telegraphs (their only connection with the wider world) for help. Edgar, who has boldly claimed he wishes for annihilation, is afraid of dying and needs the comfort of human company, and Alice, who has wished to be free, is afraid that freedom means being alone. Ties that bind.

“Hell on earth” remains inscribed on the blackened stone wall behind them. Uneasily we note that their savage attacks upon each other have not led to a resolution, but are routines repeated in a horrific vaudeville of frustration, resentment and gamesmanship. It will remain so until death does part them.

The Dance of Death is fascinating theatre. While Friels and Rabe give standout performances, a convincingly dark world of anguish and emotional violence is evoked through music and sound (Paul Charlier), setting and lighting (Brian Thomson and Matthew Scott) and costume (Judy Tanner). Directed by Judy Davis with unsparing honesty and a keen eye for Strindberg’s dismembering techniques, the performance is bewitchingly savage.

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