Theatre review - The Dance of Death

In August Strindberg’s 1900 play, given a contemporary reboot in RebeccaLenkiewicz’s adaption, a couple are trapped in a loveless marriage. Edgar (Hilton McRae), an army captain, and his younger wife Alice (Lindsay Duncan) live in a fortress on a remote island and receive their communications from the mainland through a telegraph.

As they prepare to celebrate their pearl wedding anniversary Edgar and Alice taunt one another. Alice, a former actress, misses her busy social life and blames her husband for destroying her career and happiness. The Captain, in failing health, likes to recall his former glory days and bullies his wife. The only respite from this marital hell is when they call a truce and play card games.

Their endless fights and bitter recriminations have driven away their children and their friends so they await with eager anticipation the arrival of Alice’s cousin (Emily Bruni) – a quarantine administrator, transformed in Lenkiewicz’s version from Kurt into Katrin.

During her visit, the couple’s antagonism reaches new heights until Edgar threatens to divorce Alice and cut her out of his will. She in turn accuses him of trying to murder her.

You can see how Strindberg’s examination of co-dependence and the absurdity of human repetition influenced the plays of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and, later, John Osborne and Edward Albee’s work about warring couples. However, Mehmet Ergen’s production feels deliberately low key, perhaps in a bid to avoid melodrama. As a result, the actors give truthful, but under-powered, performances.

The Dance of Death is, in part, about the couple’s response to Edgar’s imminent mortality. In Lenkiewicz’s adaptation the pair swear a lot, but bicker rather than verbally wound each other. McRae’s captain is not vicious enough. Any threat of violence – and tension – is diminished. At times, it feels like the sparring of a couple who just need to take a break from one another.

Arcola Theatre 

Until July 30

Originallly published by Islington Tribune