Dances of Death

“‘Pleasure’? What does that word mean?” asks the Captain (Michael Pennington), the militarised autocrat of a fortress on an isolated island. Any pleasure in the play is of the sadistic kind, a product of Edgar (the Captain) and his wife Alice’s (Linda Marlowe) establishment as the pawns in a mutual, marital loathing. August Strindberg’s fiery play, in this new version by Howard Brenton, spectacularly depicts the tragedy and dark comedy of a doomed marriage and its wider implications. This production also features the rarely performed part two, featuring the prolonged drama and its particular effects on the couple’s alienated daughter Judith (Eleanor Wyld). Wyld, and Edward Franklin as her unlikely love Allan, are a refreshing addition to a stage bursting with the wisdom of three older and more accomplished thespians. This blend, coupled with such a complex and demanding play, makes for an evening of accomplished entertainment.

The intimate auditorium at the Gate Theatre effectively enhances the claustrophobic nature of James Perkins’s initial set, the dilapidated and tired living room that reflects the state of the marriage in question. Portholes, carafes of whisky and a portrait of Alice as a professional actress represent the stagnant opulence of a life which, deceivingly, never was. The use of several scenarios including a game of cards and the receiving of a telegram create the foundation for the psychological warfare that spirals out of control into madness, passion, sadism and ruthless power play. Tension and foreboding sweep across the blackout tableaux, which form useful transitions between complex scene shifts in this rollercoaster of a play. The introduction of Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft) initially promises respite from the emotional turbulence, yet his humble manners and composed nature are violently disturbed. A calm and softly spoken Ravenscroft expertly turns explosive and reactionary in his relations with Alice, his cousin. A subversive love affair begins between them, with a vampiric bite of the neck shocking each and every audience member. I don’t think we were quite prepared for such brutality, though each actor performs with the conviction to make these moments hauntingly realistic. Having said this, Littler’s inclusion of bizarre Cossack-type dances, to represent the Captain’s apparent mental illness, hints at the influence of supernaturalism.

This complex play soon shifts in dynamic when it becomes clear that Alice’s hope of having Edgar arrested for treasonous behaviour was fabricated by him to ensure her betrayal. Marlowe’s Alice is superbly macabre, cunning and mildly terrifying, with a dominance on stage that is hard to ignore. This is of course a success of Marlowe’s acting and Littler’s direction, as it is apparent that Strindberg’s play is designed to highlight these mind games played on and by women, and their outcome. Alice suffers as Kurt’s reputation and financial stability is eroded by Edgar’s scheming in part two, yet it is her influence on Judith which is remarkable. In a starkly different setting — one of much more refinery — Judith evades the torturous and possessive games of both parents to take for herself a life of love, which had never played out before her previously.

This whirlwind of a play captured my faculties entirely, and consumed me mind, body and soul.

Dances of Death is playing at the Gate Theatre until 6 July. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website.

Photography by Catherine Ashmore.