The Dance of Death – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: August Strindberg

Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Director: Mehmet Ergun

In a sparsely furnished room in an army barracks on an isolated island somewhere in the far North, a married couple prepare to celebrate their Pearl Wedding Anniversary. The sort of presents they have in mind are his death or disgrace, or her eviction, preferably into a blizzard. They are not a devoted couple.

The Captain is a career soldier who has never advanced beyond his nominal rank. Alice, his wife of thirty years, resents giving up her acting career, resents having never travelled further than Copenhagen, resents the army life. They fill their days by bickering and lying and playing destructive games with each other. He is possibly terminally ill. Or possibly not. An old friend, perhaps an old lover of Alice’s, comes back into their lives as the head of a Quarantine hospital based on the island. They bicker and lie to her as well.

For 90 minutes, the three characters make each other miserable. The one tender moment comes from an attempted embrace of Alice by Katrin, rebuffed as soon as begun. Later the tenderness turns into violence and humiliation. They hate each other passionately, but they hate the rest of the world, including their children and their relatives, more. Their daily combat keeps them going, and they prefer feeling rage to feeling nothing. It isn’t a particularly happy situation.

Hilton McRae gives an effectively waspish and petulant reading to the character of The Captain, Lindsay Duncan gives energetic voice to a string of vulgarities as his wife Alice, and Emily Bruni seems slightly lost and well out of her depth as Katrin; appropriately so for a singularly baffled character. Katrin may be besotted by Alice, she may be desperate to regain her family, she may be going to her next Army posting, it isn’t really clear. Lost and out of her depth is an appropriate choice.

All the performances are accomplished, Grace Smart’s barebones set works well and gets some good shadows from David Howe’s lights, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz has given it some 21st century spice to go with Strindberg’s 19th century bile, but it remains a charmless and nasty little play. Mehmet Ergen directs efficiently, even if the standard exit is a flounce, but it can’t really indicate why anyone should care much for these singularly repellent people, classy cast notwithstanding. Strindberg wrote to a friend: “Hatred and love! All is one […] One and the same.” And that’s what the play expresses.

 Runs until 23 July 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Stylish, shrewish, spiteful.

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