Saturday, 8 June 2013

Theatre review: Dances of Death

There must be an unwritten rule about Strindberg that says you can only have the same one of his plays over and over, or none at all. Usually it's Miss Julie, but it's less than six months since Donmar Trafalgar gave us The Dance of Death, and now here it is at the Gate. Except it turns out Strindberg wrote two parts to the play, and the second part is rarely performed. Howard Brenton's new version conflates the two parts into a single two-act play, hence the title change to Dances of Death. Set on a Swedish island that's used in its entirety as a military base, it focuses on the toxic 30-year marriage of elderly army captain Edgar (Michael Pennington) and his wife Alice (Linda Marlowe.) What seems at first to be affection disguised as a string of insults turns out to have a very real hatred underneath it - and yet the couple are too committed to causing each other misery ever to try and escape.

The return from America of Alice's cousin, and Edgar's childhood friend, Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft) gives them a new focus on whom to play their manipulative games. But the addition of the sequel to the narrative shows this destructive influence carrying over into another generation.

Some plays stand up to repeat viewing even within a short period of time (to be fair they tend to be Shakespeare.) For the three-hander that forms the first part, six months may not be quite enough. Although Tom Littler's production looks good in James Perkins' design and has strong, intense performances, I did find it hard to get invested in the various tricks and deceptions Edgar and Alice try on each other and on Kurt. Deeply unlikeable characters aren't necessarily a barrier to good drama, but it is a barrier to reliving their exploits so soon.

The second act was not only new to me but also expands the cast so I fared a lot better with that (it's also snappier, with lots of short scenes.) Edgar and Alice's daughter Judith (Eleanor Wyld) is stringing along two smitten men, Kurt's son Allan (Edward Franklin) and a Lieutenant (Richard Beanland) who assists her father - two years on, Edgar has now retired into a teaching role and is liked by the students, including Allan. But he's still secretly plotting against Kurt for offences committed in the first act, and will use their children to twist the knife.

The restoration of the second part gives a new shape to the story, which now seems to revolve more specifically around Edgar and his evil plots. In fact by the end he comes across as a man whose malice is actually what's keeping him alive. Pennington gradually builds him into a monster who revels in his villainy, which is powerful thing to watch, but still leaves us without anyone to root for. Especially as his main antagonist is so much his opposite - naïvely falling for the manipulation time and again, Kurt's stoicism makes him such a doormat it's hard to get on his side either.

Dances of Death by August Strindberg in a version by Howard Brenton is booking until the 6th of July at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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