Before there was Edward Albee’s (1962) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, some six decades earlier, August Strindberg wrote his own claustrophobic four-hander about marital cruelty and trauma – also conveyed through a blend of naturalism and absurdist sensibility.
Set in a military garrison on an unforgiving Baltic Sea island, aged and mid-ranking soldier, Edgar (Hilton McRae) and his wife Alice (Lindsay Duncan) bicker – seemingly good-naturedly – about a forthcoming celebration of their ‘Pearl Wedding Anniversary’. They cast snide judgments about the limited number of individuals who form a society around them: the middle-class professionals and their pretensions: the high-ranked army commanders; the domestic staff whom they find wanting.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of the Swede’s play is plenty salty with dialogue filled with the sort of casual profanity one might not always associate with a text published in 1900. With mannered delivery and Mona Lisa smiles, the married couple seem to take bites out of each other from habit and low-level disdain – but there is a sort of invisible scrim of artifice around their mutual verbal abuse. Are we witnessing weary and prolonged contempt or rather a sort of shared intimacy only they understand?
It would seem as if the script – via Alice’s recounting of events to her cousin Katrin (Emily Bruni) – stipulates the husband is a brute of habitual cruelty. However, in terms of action, it is Alice’s blatant rudeness and intemperance towards their housemaid (Grainne Dromgoole) that begins a sequence of consequences to compound the couple’s disdain for each other and isolation. Indeed, by his dry but fairly jovial manner in the opening scenes, we do not know for certain if Edgar is actually the tyrant described.
In a short 90-minute one-act telling, the departure of the maid – as well as other household staff apparently due to Edgar’s failure to pay them – is followed by the arrival of a complex and complicating character, Katrin.
It transpires that Katrin has recently returned from America, drinks moderately (compared to the couple’s self-described boozy habits) and for some reason has lost custody of her children in a divorce to her ex-husband. It being barely the 20th century in Sweden – a time and place in which the Morse code of the telegraph is relied on to communicate with the outside world because ‘the telephone is bugged’ – the context of divorce and a woman’s rights in and out of marriage evokes themes famously expounded by Norway’s Ibsen and the dilemmas he creates for Nora in A Doll’s House. However, Katrin, as the mother accused of abandoning her children by Edgar, is a character of Lenkiewicz’s invention. Strindberg’s original text relies on Kurt, a father who has lost custody of his children – possibly through manipulation by Edgar. Whether Kurt or Katrin, the cousin’s arrival brings a new sexual charge to Alice’s behaviour and provokes questions about dominance and revenge.
And yet, there is something so mannered and occasionally smirking in the cast’s performances as directed by Mehmet Ergen, that it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. A veneer of suspicion and subterfuge coats each line.
We learn that Alice was once an actress and Edgar grew up intensely poor, caring for seven children ‘when he should have been having his first love’. Alice expresses both admiration and disgust towards her husband. Her reactions to him are either overly solicitous or utterly indifferent — with plenty of chatter about hopes of his imminent death; a matter about which its imminence is extremely ambiguous.
It seems as if Lenkiewicz and Ergen wanted to bring a different take on the power dynamics of this marriage, and the wider society it represents, by altering the gender of the complicating character. At the same time, the story relies on expectations of the time and place for its impetus and rules. As such, there is a sort of menacing ambience – and plenty of dark humour – reminiscent of another 1962 production: Harold Pinter’s The Lover but there is also something frustrating about this production. With all characters unsympathetic and moral ambiguity abounding, even a pacey 90 minutes can feel a little like an exercise or a sketch rather than a fully formed drama. Nonetheless, it is strong fodder for a deep discussion after the show.
Review by Mary Beer
As their 30th wedding anniversary approaches, Alice and Edgar are locked in a bitter struggle. They’ve driven away their children and their friends. Their relationship is sustained by taunts and recriminations. When a newcomer breaks into the midst of the fray, their insular lives threaten to spin out of control. Laced with biting humour, The Dance of Death is August Strindberg’s landmark drama about a marriage pushed to its limits.
An Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Oxford Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath Productions co-production
THE DANCE OF DEATH
Written by AUGUST STRINDBERG
Adapted by REBECCA LENKIEWICZ
Cast: Emily Bruni, Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae
Director: Mehmet Ergen; Designer: Grace Smart; Sound Designer: Daniel Balfour;
Lighting Designer: David Howe
UK tour: 19 May – 30 July 2022