Review: THE DANCE OF DEATH, Theatre Royal Bath

Starring Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae

By: Jun. 02, 2022

Review: THE DANCE OF DEATH, Theatre Royal Bath Review: THE DANCE OF DEATH, Theatre Royal Bath Recent scenes of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard slugging it out in an ugly defamation trial in a Virginia courtroom seem like a picnic when compared to this new revival of August Strindberg's absurdist play written back in 1900.

While Depp and Heard suffered four years in a volatile relationship, you have to feel for failed captain, Edgar, played energetically by Olivier Award nominee Hilton McRae, and his wife Alice (Lindsay Duncan in a magnetic show-stealing performance). Stuck in a vitriolic union for years, the couple isn't much looking forward to an approaching 30th anniversary. Alice is all for burying it, while Edgar says they'll be dead soon anyhow and "all of our noises will be silent".

Oscar-winning writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz retains a period feel in her modern version of Strindberg's nuptials battleground, but with more everyday language and plenty of 21st century swearing thrown in to boot. The jury's out on whether the production benefits from the profanity, although perhaps hurling such freeing invective saves McRae and Duncan (who are married in real life) the bother of signing up for marriage counselling.

Lenkiewicz also introduces a gender switch of male cousin Kurt to the female Katrin. Excellent Emily Bruni ably takes on the part of Katrin, an observant outsider to the ongoing destructive love-hate relationship. Offering a new perspective as a mother parted from her children, Bruni builds on the camaraderie with Alice, a fellow abused woman. I would have liked to see the adaptation go one step further to see what Emily could do with a more assertive and fleshed-out Katrin.

Designer Grace Smart reflects the protagonists' claustrophobic marriage in a distressed-looking parlour in an isolated island military fortress. The Scandi stripped-paint setting could well end up one day in a Farrow and Ball catalogue - anyone for Odious Ochre or Vile Veridian? Traditional costumes with a hint of what's trendy in 2022, also by Smart, offer military-chic braces and black boots for Edgar, and an organic blue dress Alice could have ordered online from Poetry.

Director Mehmet Ergen's simple 90-minute production is the perfect fit for Theatre Royal Bath's smaller Ustinov Studio, with good acoustics and lighting by David Howe that shows the passage of time with shadows of the chandelier on the ceiling. It will be interesting to see how the play adjusts to different-sized theatres when it tours after its run in Bath.

In the same unhappy couple camp as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, The Dance of Death makes tense, but intriguing viewing as the audience tries to work out Edgar's and Alice's stories. Is Edgar really a tinpot dictator as Alice claims, or is his bluster only concealing his fear of illness and death? Is Alice tempted to have a fling with Katrin? Who is telling the truth and who is telling lies? Stories aren't sacrosanct in marriages, or in the wider world for that matter. Think of the shifting sands of storytelling in Boris's Partygate, or Putin's defence of going to war in the Ukraine. Are we all leading a merry dance, or being led?

Mehmet and his team should be applauded for tackling something as challenging as this adaptation of Strindberg's complex pas de deux. But perhaps more could have been made of the contemporary correlation to Katrin's reason for coming to the island. She's setting up a quarantine station due to an outbreak of cholera, which chimes with Covid 19 and the loneliness, boredom and near madness experienced by many couples living together in confined spaces.

For instance, Katrin could be dressed in NHS Scrubs, and Alice and Edgar trapped in lockdown in a rundown rural army town hit hard by Covid. All the more reason for a couple in close quarters to be bickering and for the threat of heading for a divorce court becoming a real possibility.

The Dance of Death runs at the Theatre Royal Bath until June 4, and then tours to Oxford Playhouse, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Royal & Derngate Northampton and London's Arcola Theatre to July 30

Photo credit: Alex Brenner


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