Writer: August Strindberg
Director: Marit Moum Aune
The human capacity for self-destruction seems infinite; that willingness to torture, annoy and drive each other mad is the basis for Strindberg’s tragi-comic drama Dance of Death. Now the National Theatre of Norway’s production transfers to London’s Coronet Theatre, performed in the original language with English surtitles. It proves to be an atmospheric piece as directed by Marit Moum Aune, and one that brings out the human willingness to enter the darkness and to betray, all the while examining the evisceration of self that only being in a long, combative marriage can bring.
Approaching their 25th wedding anniversary, Alice and Edgar loathe one another and, trapped on an isolated island where he is the military commander, each day is a bitter cycle of argument, irritation and the same conversation. While everyone else on the island hates them – Strindberg never explains why – old friend Kurt comes to stay, a gentle, upright man who is soon drawn into their powerplay. But when everyone raises the stakes, it seems there is no way out for any of them.
Aune’s confident production pays close attention to its title; death may lurk but this whole play is a dance and one that is beautifully choreographed, moving the characters and the pieces around with a precision that makes the most of Strindberg’s text. The combination of duologues and interactions between all three protagonists, as well as the growing tension and charge between them. is well conveyed here, making clear the terrible things people are prepared to do to one another in the name of love and hate.
Even Børsum’s semi-representative set suggests a damaged domesticity, faded furniture and an outdoor-indoor aesthetic that allows nature to intrude like weeds. The descent of taxidermy woodland creatures is perhaps a heavy-handed metaphor in the final section, but Børsum creates three sparse locations centred around a metal framed house-shaped gazebo that is never sufficient to contain the messy drama of Alice and Edgar’s life together, spilling instead around the stage.
Pia Tjelta’s Alice is the centrepiece performance, giving as good as she gets in the fights with Jon Øigarden’s Edgar. Do they love one another really? You are encouraged to think so, even if in some warped way, but Tjelta and Øigarden have a physical chemistry that borders on attraction and an occasionally violent interaction. The introduction and trajectory of Thorbjørn Harr’s Kurt is the change in the story, a steadfast, sober man but having endured three betrayals by Edgar within this play’s 85-minute running time, it pushes Kurt over the edge and Harr marks that decline really well.
Øigarden slightly over does it on the one-note bombast of his character, making it hard to believe that Alice suffered for 25-minutes never mind 25-years, and occasionally the English surtitles seem to miss exchanges which laughter in the room indicates. Nonetheless this is a very classy and meaningful production of Dance with Death that will make you hope that more European Theatre companies will find an audience in London.
Runs until 31 March 2023