The Dance of Death

Arcola Theatre


The blend of black humour and dramatic symbolism proved a provocative way for Strindberg to explore a favourite theme: marriage. His play influenced Ionesco, Beckett and most obviously Edward Albee and this new version by award-winning playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz stars real-life Hampstead couple Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McCrae.

But while Mehmet Ergen’s production gives the play a beguiling fresh look that cements its status it doesn't quite land its purpose.

Captain Edgar and his former actress wife Alice are pondering their 30th anniversary. Locked in bitter mutual recriminations, they have driven away family and friends – including their two surviving children - and live on a remote island on the fringes of a ‘community of idiots’. Alice loathes the Captain’s despotic ways, taunts him for failing to win promotion, and can’t forgive him for destroying her dreams of stardom. Happy Anniversary!

McCrae looks spry and formidable in the Captain’s uniform, clicking his steel capped boots in the titular dance, defiant in the face of death. Duncan's Alice is fuelled by barely repressed loathing and a talent for droll put-downs. She appears decorously languid, despite the drab outfit she insists on wearing and he predictably maligns. The pair exchange glances between insults and at times there is a shared mocking fondness. Patterns repeat – that’s the point – but switching tone too often at times over complicates it.

Lenkiewicz adds a good deal of swearing and Alice’s visiting cousin Kurt becomes Katrin (Emily Bruni) a quarantine official and divorced mother who has wrongfully lost custody of her children. Her incarnation breathes new life into the play’s presentation of unjust divorce laws. Sexual tension between Katrin and Alice is cut short by a supposedly shocking vampiric kiss and the love triangle collapses. Fortunately, genius lighting by David Howe on the note-perfect Strindberg set by Grace Smart papers over some cracks.

This production is impressively taut and atmospheric. Performances are high-class. But as a portrait of a dying man who insists, "as long as your body keeps going, flailing and thrashing about, we are duty bound to fight," it doesn’t fully deliver on existential torment.

At the Arcola, Hackney, until July 23.