Theatre Review - Dances of Death

It’s hard enough to be stuck in a loveless marriage but imagine being marooned on an island together with your hated spouse for thirty years. This is the premise of Strindberg’s two-part drama that pits Edgar (Michael Pennington) against Alice (Linda Marlowe) in a battle of wits and one-upmanship. The couple clearly loathe one another and, over three decades, their hatred has poisoned everything inside and out of their home. They’re in debt, their servants never last long, the other islanders avoid them and even their daughter Judith (Eleanor Wyld) apparently keeps her distance, preferring to stay on the mainland.

Edgar, an army captain and commander of the fortress, treats his wife with virulent disdain. Alice, a former actress, longs for his death – he suffers repeated strokes but, once revitalised, celebrates with the savage, wild dances of the title. When Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), Alice’s cousin’s and Edgar’s childhood friend, arrives on the island to take up a post as quarantine master, he pays witnesses to the hell the pair have created. Edgar holds Kurt responsible for his loveless marriage while Alice seeks an ally. All looks set for a show down but the couple’s mutual obsession and Kurt’s natural passivity in the face of aggression moves events in a different direction.

Part II focuses on Judith’s relationship with Kurt’s son, Allen (Edward Franklin). Like her father she is adept at taunting her prey but Allen’s love offers the possibility of redemption. Again Edgar revels in playing the puppet master, attempting to meddle in his daughter’s future and usurping Kurt’s political ambitions. Like a political tyrant, he rules his family with “an iron fist” and is diabolical until the very end.

Howard Brenton’s adaptation teases out the black humour from Strindberg’s original script and gives it a contemporary twist. At times, though, the tension palls and one yearns for a little more light to offset the play’s darker side. Tom Littler’s slick production is complemented by two world-class actors. What a coup for the Gate. Pennington and Marlowe give striking performances as the embittered couple raging at themselves and the world and James Perkins’ stunning design is worth the trip alone.

Running at the Gate Theatre until 6 July

Originally published by Theatreworld