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FringeReview UK 2022

The Dance of Death

Arcola Theatre, London, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Oxford Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bath

Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, European Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Arcola Theatre Studio 1


Low Down

Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Mehmet Ergen, Set and Costume Designer Grace Smart, Lighting Design David Howe, Sound Designer Dan Balfour, Associate Director Imy Wyatt Corner, Composer Kristina Arakelyan, Assistant Director Naz Yeni.

Production Manager Tammy Rose, Costumer Supervisor Chrissy Maddison, CSM Roger Richardson, DSM Aida Bourdis, ASM and Wardrobe Yasmin Knowles, Production Manager Sam Raine, Production LX Will Burgher, Tour Relights Sonic Harrison.

PR Storyhouse PR, Kate Morley PR, Production Photography Alex Brenner.

Till July 23rd and touring


Rebecca Lenkiewicz is asked to adapt a play set on a quarantine island. The Arcola’s AD Mehmet Ergen is this production’s director too. It’s early 2020.

So after a hiatus its author might have relished, Strindberg’s The Dance of Death finally comes to the Arcola. Though Arcola-commissioned, it’s a touring co-production with other theatres, starting with Bath on May 19th. At eighty minutes this production’s now in its deadly stride.

Lenkiewicz working with a literal translation from Ian Giles, freights her lithe version with updated c-words; it’s still set in 1900, with one gender switch (Katrin for Kurt) which has the realistic period outcome of a mother deprived of her children on divorce: a fine Lenkiewicz touch, removing original misogyny but not the plotter against Katrin, who remains.

Over who the greater monster is Strindberg remains ambivalent. We might feel differently. And there’s Katrin too, whose vampirism reveals itself. It’s there in the original, this faithful version has no need to amplify.

Lindsay Duncan’s former actress Alice is trapped in an apparently loveless marriage approaching (here) thirty years: to Hilton McRae’s Edgar, an unpopular captain whose career’s stalled as he commands a quarantine station. Anti-social, the couple have even set their departed children against them both. Ten years Alice’s senior Edgar suffers from heart trouble he privately knows will kill him.

Edgar indulges in cruel ruses, intercepts plots. Alice loves to play games. Confiding in Katrin she says ‘don’t tell Edgar’ then tells him herself. Alice loves to play piano music he hates, she hates what he loves: marches. When she does play say ‘March of the Boyars’ Edgar gyrates in a grotesque sabre dance compromised by falling over and blanking out in a trance. Dan Balfour’s sound emphasizes how the piano rises to nightmare. Can he be dead? Really? Let’s play cards again.

No, Sartre’s Huis Clos isn’t far from here, and as Michael Billington notes in his introduction Ionesco’s The Chairs explicitly sets the scene on a circular tower. There’s explicit hommage too in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Beckett: Strindberg’s hellish a trois here, as well as elsewhere is a hectic in the blood of 20th century drama.

Is this the redemptive version? However vicious Lenkiewicz’s Strindberg has to be you can’t help feeling that real-life married-couple Duncan and McRae revel in the sheer jouissance of Lenkiewicz’s text, which telegraphs some of the exchanges (as happens in new versions). There’s airiness, lithe stilettos of repartee that gets pretty close to love in hate.

This wasn’t entirely absent in the Trafalgar Studios 2012 revival when Kevin R McNally and Indira Varma slide off the sofa and end in laughter. There’s a recent tendency to remove from mid-century existentialism through to domestic realism. In one way, a greater horror looms. Strindberg writes out of naturalism: he hadn’t heard of existentialism’s shorthand; he was too busy creating it, if a bit avant. In another, it eschews Greek tragedy ever winding up. Strindberg subverts that ending too: too easy.

The catalyst of this play is extraordinary. It’s the couple themselves. It’s a bit Private Lives, even more Present Laughter. Normally an outsider’s the catalyst and Emily Bruni’s excellent, watchful Katrin brings simmering resentment, hidden desire and revenge as a portfolio under her dark dress: all the better to get her teeth into retribution. She might think she’s the agent.

But this Katrin’s also a bit in love with them both, sexually so with Alice. In the end though, with plots and counter-plots (no spoilers) you feel Edgar and Alice are catalytic to whoever comes their way. Even, we learn, their own children. They don’t shift, though perhaps here recognise their co-dependance, even some renewal of feeling.

To be sure, Edgar’s serpentine crushing of Kurt is more telling. In compensation, Alice’s treatment of Katrin, ordering her to lick her shoe, knowing her desire, is a fine substitute. Then it’s Alice’s turn to be surprised. Duncan etches a fine acid print of Alice: mixing hauteur as banter with Katrin with downright cruelty towards her; and at Grainne Dromgoole’s smoulder of resentment as maid Jenny.

There’s a way with text as shorthand for subtext – everything’s loaded – that McRae and Duncan gleam to vulpine perfection. But then foxes make a racket when mating. McRae’s voice,  suggestively marinaded in drink despite Edgar’s crying off it, cuts through to devilment. Duncan has a way of hardening and softening, like a lamp. It’s exquisite, though some will want flesh-tearing. And one moment, Edgar aiming a rifle at Alice, vanishes.

Dromgoole’s shrouded Woman enjoys a revenant riposte, at least to Edgar, as harbinger – he thinks – of a gentler mortality. David Howe’s unearthly light is at its most imaginative here, and generally from candle-light to bleak day, suffuses the set; it’s a striking bonus to this production. Chekhov’s unearthly sound in The Cherry Orchard four years later owns the same Symbolist stirrings, showing how both writers use visitation rooted in apparent realism – this Woman’s from the workhouse, apparently – to set their feet on the neck of an expressionist century.

Grace Smart’s superb square in a round tower allows bare naturalism its play though. With off-white walls hung with swords, heavy dark balcony windows, a piano to their right and hat stands left, with a projected wall ending in a desk and morse receiver, we’re swept round with a faded black-and-tan Persian rug, dark wooden card table and chairs,  an equally mint-faded chaise-long. Smart’s costumery from the Captain’s spur-gleamed impotence and red-striped trousers, to Alice’s faded blue brilliance, Katrin’s and Jenny’s working black, allow the thrill of modernity to burst out. People still don’t do such things. Set later, Strindberg fails.

The audience’s feet often touch the orange/black boards of the set: Duncan, McRae and Dromgoole circle round in a sarabande of death inches away. It’s compelling, you don’t miss a beat. If some (conventional) claustrophobia’s evaporated, that’s no fault of consummate acting but a choice, an exploration by Lenkiewicz, Ergen – and Duncan and McRae, involved from the start. The plot, cleared of sulphur, winds up with cleaner elegance, highlighting the truth of its bleak laughter. Humane Strindberg. Now there’s a thing.