Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

Dances of Death

Whatsonstage.com, 7th June 2013, Michael Coveney

Over a century old, but still a blistering account of a mildewed marriage, Strindberg’s play is given the savage light treatment by Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe in a jagged new version by Howard Brenton.

The new title conveys the plurality of the dance moves executed by Marlowe as Alice, a former actress whose competence on the stage is a bitter bone of contention; and the famous frantic interlude of break-out exasperation by Pennington as the nasty old army captain, Edgar.

Brenton, using a literal translation by Agnes Broome, has compressed booth parts of The Dance of Death (1900) - not often done together - into two hour-long acts, so that we see the antipathies played out in another generation, between Alice and Edgar’s daughter, Judith (Eleanor Wyld), and her second cousin Allan (Edward Franklin).

Allan is the son of the unhappy couple’s best friend, Kurt, who introduced them to each other and whose wife, we learn in a sudden shaft of acrid revelation, was seduced by Edgar when he went along to console her after she left Kurt and took custody of their children.

Kurt is easily the most attractive character on the stage in Tom Littler’s well marshalled production, and he’s beautifully played by Christopher Ravenscroft as someone for whom no more news is ever going to be good.

In the second play, even his house is commandeered by Edgar, along with his financial security and political ambitions. And Edgar attempts to ruin his son, too, by consigning Allan, who has joined his battery, to distant Lapland, where Judith will swim after him, if need be.

Kurt has arrived on the remote island as a quarantine officer while Edgar and Alice play out their 30-year-old cat fight. Marlowe, inured against feeling, it seems, and flaunting a cigarette holder as though devoted to striking poses of emotional dismissal, goads Pennington into some superbly towering rages.

From that height he delivers one of his most sustained and powerful performances, subsiding into strokes in each half with a shuddering intensity and laying about him with a sabre when Kurt and Alice get too cosy; their relationship is another savage twist in a saga that is obviously rooted in the dismal, inbred atmosphere of the place.

That place is a circular tower in the first half and an airy conservatory with view of the broiling sea and scudding clouds in the second, a transformation brilliantly suggested by designer James Perkins.

The show plays out as a series of snapshot scenes, punctuated with howling winds and symphonic music, this technical side of things unusually realised in the sound of George Dennis, the lighting of William Reynolds, and the frieze-link movement of Quinny Sacks.

The Daily Telegraph, 7th June 2013, Jane Shilling

The thing about dramas by  Strindberg is that however miserable you may be feeling about your domestic situation when you arrive, by the time you leave you’ll be feeling that things aren’t so bad, after all.

Strindberg’s two-part drama, Dances of Death, is a particularly excoriating exercise in psychological warfare. Its protagonists, Edgar (Michael Pennington) and Alice (Linda Marlowe), are the very embodiment of a dear old couple who hate one another. They have been married for 30 years and appear to have spent all the time trying to destroy one another. Why, then, are they still together? That is the play’s terrifying conundrum.

Strindberg sets his plays in an island fortress, of which Edgar is the military commander. Over the decades he and Alice, a former actress, have developed an expertly choreographed set of routines for torturing one another. Having alienated their daughter, Judith, what they really need is an audience - and one obligingly appears, in the person of Alice’s mild-mannered cousin, Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft).

Strindberg’s drama provided inspiration for many other playwrights, from Friedrich Durrenmatt to Edward Albee (though Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf looks like a drawing-room comedy by comparison). Tom Littler’s production of Howard Brenton’s admirable adaptation follows Durrenmatt in presenting the plays as a series of short scenes, like rounds in some vicious wrestling match. The production is full of intelligent awareness of context: in the second part, the backdrop references Strindberg’s 1903 painting The Town.

The ways in which things could go horribly wrong are myriad. The drama begins at an almost unendurable pitch of violent loathing, which rises steadily over the next two hours. The action takes the form of a hateful dance in which the parties engage, then retreat before advancing again. A single false note would be enough to ruin everything.

But Littler’s production has a magical assurance. James Perkins’s design, the lighting by William Reynolds and the sound by George Dennis are perfectly pitched. And the performances by the three central characters are astonishing; of a nuance and intensity that is terrifying magnified by the proximity of the audience to the stage in the Gate’s tiny auditorium.

At the interval one of colleagues remarked that the emotional tension was such that she’d gnawed a small hole in her raincoat. When critics start chewing their garments, you know that something remarkable is happening onstage.

The Independent, 7th June 2013, Michael Coveney

Strindberg’s The Dance of Death (1900) is  play in two parts. Although Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan played the full saga at the National Theatre in 1966, you only usually see Part One.

Howard Brenton, using a literal translation by Agnes Broome, has provided a sleek new version of both parts in which Michael Pennington as the appalling army captain, Edgar, and Linda Marlowe as his defiantly critical former actress wife, Alice, play out their misery in the course of what now seem like two meaty one-act plays.

Brenton picks over the bones of each part faithfully, and particularly brings out the triangular nature of the tragedy in the figure of Edgar’s old friend, Kurt - here played with quivering sensitivity by Christopher Ravenscroft - who has arrived on the island as a quarantine officer only to be terrifyingly destroyed  by Edgar as well.

The first part shows Alice and Edgar moving in another plateau of disagreement in the tower but admitting that they might as well stick it out to the silver jubilee. In the second part, they have moved down to ground level in Kurt’s oval drawing-room by the sea.

There, Judith, their daughter, is flirting with Kurt’s son, Allan, who has arrived on the island to join Edgar’s batter. These youngsters, well played by Eleanor Wyld and Edward Franklin, show a new possibility for their generation, even though Edgar looks set to scupper that, too, by posting Allan to Lapland.

Michael Pennington provides a monstrous portrait of smiling, vengeful malignity, executing that famous dance with all the panache of Olivier and the heel-clicking decisiveness of Ian McKellen in the role ten years ago. But he adds something more, a sort of gloating, vulpine glee in the havoc he wreaks, and you only get that by having Part Two.

How the couple have survived this long without killing each other is a mystery, and there’s a Gothic horror element in Marlowe’s cradling of Edgar’s head as  he suffers his second major stroke, invoking the legend of Judith and Holofernes; you feel all her preening and posing for several decades is released in a cathartic shout of triumph.

Strindberg’s play was devised for his Intimate Theatre, so the seventy-odd customers at the Gate are suitably up close and personal to those fraught emotional shenanigans, which are notably well directed by Tom Littler in an outstanding design by James Perkins.

The Stage, 7th June 2013, Mark Shenton

Plays from Noel Coward’s Private Lives to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Have anatomised the desperate, verbally and sometimes physically) violent game-playing of long-term relationships of mutual hostility. But Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, written in 1900, got there long before either of them, to provided a chilling, thrilling portrait of the dripping poison of marital hell.

It was written in two parts of which only  the first is typically performed, making it a brutally self-contained three-hander in which a couple, three weeks short of their 30th anniversary, are reunited with the man who first brought them together, and have an appalled audience for their dance of contempt, distrust and fury.

But now the Gate is presenting then world premiere of a new adaptation by Howard Brenton that adds the more rarely-seen second part. Re-titled Dances of Death, it stretches and expands the drama to include the spread of the infection of the couple’s behaviour like a virus to affect and infect their daughter, their friend and his son, as a quarantine station is set up on the island and the friend comes over to run it.

Of course the two who need quarantining more than anything else are the couple themselves, and if their behaviour becomes a little relentless, it is also blisteringly and biliously funny. Tom Littler’s stark, dark and elegant production is magnificently designed by James Perkins to at once suggest the overpowering claustrophobia of their sealed-in world but also the wider landscape, both physical and of their imagination beyond it.

It is played with a piercing precision by a cast led by Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe as the warring couple, projecting the dark severity and even darker wit of the situation that sustains them. There’s equally strong work from Christopher Ravenscroft, Edward Franklin and Eleanor Wyld as friends and family caught in their terrible orbit.

Return to Dances of Death

Return to Reviews