Thursday, 27 December 2012

Theatre review: The Dance of Death

My final show of 2012, and an alternative take on the idea of festive entertainment - very alternative, as we're off to an isolated Swedish island to spend some time with Strindberg. Titas Halder directs the latest Donmar Trafalgar show, The Dance of Death, for which Richard Kent's design turns Trafalgar Studio 2 into a particularly grim, filthy little shack in a military garrison. It used to be the prison, so the fact that it's been allocated to Edgar (Kevin R. McNally,) an ageing Captain, as living quarters, may offer some hint as to what the rest of the officers think of him. Certainly he doesn't have much good to say about them as they party next door - Edgar and his younger wife Alice (Indira Varma) are the only ones not invited. Almost 25 years into a marriage that doesn't appear to have had a single happy day, Edgar and Alice bicker and hiss at each other, looking forward to the release from each other that their eventual deaths will bring.

The pair's acidically co-dependent relationship is thrown into sharper relief by the arrival of Kurt (Daniel Lapaine,) the long-lost cousin Alice once had a fling with. Kurt gets caught up in the pair's ongoing marital problems, attempting to help what he sees as an abused woman, not realising how much they, Alice especially, are using him as a pawn in their decades-old game.

There's something of the absurdist theatre about Strindberg's examination of the point where love and hate become so inextricably entwined as to be indistinguishable from each other. Conor McPherson's new translation frequently goes for a streak of very dark, sometimes grotesque humour (although not, I thought, to the extent some of tonight's audience seemed to be finding - judging by the gales on uncontrollable laughter you'd have thought one corner of the auditorium were watching knockabout farce rather than cold, often cruel stabs of humour.) And Halder has really taken the opportunity to use this directing showcase by imposing a hyper-real atmosphere that brings an almost Beckettian feel to the piece. McNally and Varma seem to be really enjoying the monstrous sides of their characters, he relishing the gruff military bully-boy with his bursts of absurdity, she attacking Kurt with a vampish campaign of manipulation and more than a hint of deranged glee behind the eyes. Lapaine meanwhile is left between them thinking he's in control but actually being played from both sides.

The Dance of Death is rather an odd play, a dark exploration of the futility of existence that's presented with a touch of comic hysteria that gives it something of a unique atmosphere. It's not always the easiest watch, and with me still tired from getting little sleep over Christmas it had moments where it struggled to keep my interest. But it's well-performed, with a very steady directorial hand in evidence, and certainly provides an alternative to the tinsel everywhere else.

The Dance of Death by August Strindberg in a version by Conor McPherson is booking until the 5th of January at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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