The Dance of Death is known as one of those famously morose and miserable fin de siècle plays from the dour pen of August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright who’s often lumped together with Henrik Ibsen as being the pin-up boys of nineteenth century Scandinavian drama. I’ve seen it performed just once before, back in 2003 in a portent-filled production starring Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour, who both drifted lugubriously around the stage of London’s Lyric Theatre in silent resentment of each other with amazing prop-handling but was as boring as hell.
In case you don’t know, Captain Edgar has been married to his ex-actress wife Alice for almost thirty unhappy years, living on a forlorn fortress island, surrounded by people they despise, and who ostracise them back in return. She abuses the servants, he denies his obvious ill-health, their children are grown-up and barely in contact; in short, they eke out an existence that can hardly be called life. Occasionally they think back to glamorous days in Copenhagen just as Chekhov’s Three Sisters reminisce about Moscow – both plays written in the same year, 1900, which is a curious coincidence.
Into this drab merry-go-round comes Alice’s cousin – normally Kurt, but in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ adaptation now Katrin – who has moved to the island to become the Matron of Quarantine. Sounds familiar? 122 years later and we’re still never too far from an intimidating and lethal new virus. Katrin doesn’t see her children anymore; there are differences of opinion as to why this is. There’s also a sexual domination frisson that occurs between Alice and Katrin which may – or may not – have contributed to both of their unhappinesses; you decide. At the end, Katrin washes her hands of both of them, leaving Edgar and Alice exactly where they were at the beginning of the play.
This Made in Northampton co-production with the Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Bath, finally made its way to Northampton for just three days’ performances having received a variety of reviews from four stars to one star. The Guardian’s one-star review very nearly made me avoid this production, but the thought of Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae cantankerising the devil out of each other was too enticing to miss. And I’m very glad I didn’t.
Why is this play considered so significant? Setting aside the modern corollary of Covid with the plague that beset the community at the time, you can see the roots of so many classic 20th century dramas emerging from the relationship between Edgar and Alice. I’m not sure we would have seen Waiting for Godot without this play – the Captain and his wife as a pair of co-dependent lost souls who end the play exactly as they started whilst life has progressed around them. Or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Edgar and Alice as George and Martha, deriving all their pleasure from random games of Get the Guests, but this time with Katrin and the servants. As in both of these plays, events that are presented as factual, such as Edgar’s announcement of divorce, Alice and Katrin’s sexual attraction, or even their telephone being bugged, are almost certainly not what they seem.
Technically, this is a very decent production. Grace Smart’s suitably lifeless set contains the trappings of a comfortable life, and I loved David Howe’s lighting design that creates a deliberately long shadow capturing the shape of a candelabra on the ceiling. The very quiet sounds of a distant party (to which they’re not invited) emphasise how remote their existence is, although the presence of the telegraph machine shows they can be in communication with the outside world. The women’s sombre clothes reflect their unfulfilled lives, with the only contrast being the red flashes on the Captain’s uniform that indicate that he does have some sort of presence outside these four walls. The timeless issues of the play – unhappy marriage, estrangement from children, and – if I can put it in the modern vernacular – serious FOMO, lend themselves well to a sparky new adaptation that revels in some very un-nineteenth century language.
Mehmet Ergen’s direction allows the dark comedy of the piece to bubble under the surface constantly; it never breaks through into full-scale hilarity but is always there providing an absurd sub-commentary on their appalling lives together. Suggestions of domestic violence between the two are helpfully minimised, which allows us to concentrate more on the text. Lindsay Duncan’s Alice wears her unhappiness as though it were a favourite dress, both showing it off with pride, and protecting herself like a suit of armour. She has a beautiful downbeat style with which she pings off Alice’s throwaway insults with subtle ease, and it’s a very convincing performance. Hilton McRae provides the Captain with a good deal of bluster and misplaced self-confidence, with occasional rays of warmth shining through the gloom of despair. We don’t feel sorry for him, and there’s no reason why we should, as he effortlessly conveys the sneaky manipulations behind his actions. Emily Bruni plays Katrin with straightforward, dispassionate clarity, which lurches unexpectedly into a thoroughly creepy emotional mess as she gets more and more involved.
If ever there was a Marmite production, this is it; however, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sat captivated through the whole 80 minutes (no interval). It’s almost obscene to say we enjoyed watching these two people tear each other (and a third party) apart; but it is strangely very enjoyable! The production now goes on to the final leg of its UK tour at London’s Arcola Theatre from 28 June – 23 July.
Production photos by Alex Brenner