Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 10 – Dec 23, 2018
Playwright: August Strindberg (literal translation, May-Brit Akerholt)
Director: Judy Davis
Cast: Giorgia Avery, Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Alice and Edgar live secluded on an island, married to each other but full of hate, in a state of constant exhaustion from having spent every waking moment bitter, and berating all that they come in contact with. When relative Kurt arrives for a brief visit, the antagonism escalates, as we observe the vitriol begin to infect their unsuspecting guest. From 1900, August Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death is characteristically expressionist, with the writer’s socialist attitudes perceptible in the play, although its criticisms of class are somewhat benign by today’s standards.
Its comedy is dark and caustic, and Judy Davis’ direction certainly conveys that subversive quality well, for a show that is consistently amusing, if not quite laugh out loud funny. Strindberg’s absurd and surreal dimensions are embraced by designers, who deliver a production many will find stimulating with its declarative flamboyance. Paul Charlier’s music is libidinous but disturbing, and extraordinarily theatrical in its effect. The stage floats on a pool of blood, with a backdrop proclaiming “hell on earth”; Brian Thomson’s set design and Matthew Scott’s lights conspire in a visual tango that intrigues and mystifies. Costumes and wigs by Judy Tanner are wonderfully evocative, with an exquisite red gown late in the piece, proving to be particularly memorable.
Pamela Rabe cuts a striking figure as the decadent former actress Alice, operatic in style and thoroughly entertaining, if slightly deficient with her character’s emotional authenticity. Edgar is played by Colin Friels, similarly heightened in his approach, for a beguiling study of narcissistic machismo at its ugliest. Cousin Kurt is taken through drastic transformations by Toby Schmitz, whose cheeky humour reinvigorates the action with each of his entrances.
The Dance Of Death succeeds at keeping us engaged, but we wait for poignancy that never arrives. It inspires us to think about marriage, about the way we deal with this thing called love, and how hate only exists in response to something unequivocally cherished, but the show keeps distant, as though aloof, unwilling to be touched, unable to move. Emotions can be frightening, so we go to art to better witness its machinations. Alice and Edgar share a love, but their vulnerabilities are all but calloused by the time we meet them at their twenty-fifth year of entanglement, and it is as though they no longer feel anything. They know only to make demands, and are incapable of giving anything, yet this dynamic is set on a perpetual loop, sustained by the ever surprising human capacity to withstand debasement. From the outside however, it is always easier to perceive with clarity, and we know that walking away from someone who has overstayed their welcome, is the simplest solution.