A new production of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death marks the end of an extraordinary year for the work of the Swedish polymath, the centenary of whose death has aroused a flurry of activity. Not all of this was successful – the Barbican’s gaudy, miscast adaptation of Miss Julie being a particular bomb – but there were a number of triumphs. The most remarkable success was Sue Prideaux’s mind-boggling biography, deservedly nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize – but this new adaptation by Conor McPherson follows closely behind.
The Dance of Death is the second of three plays that form the Donmar Warehouse’s season at Trafalgar Studios. It contrasts well with the first of these, Penelope Skinner’s new version of Alexei Arbuzov’s The Promise. The Promise was never a classic, but The Dance of Death undeniably is. The Promise was not a suitable vehicle for Penelope Skinner’s talents, but for Conor McPherson The Dance of Death is virtually bespoke.
The play centres on Alice (Indira Varma) and Edgar (Kevin McNally), who are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. Their relationship is defined by despair; each one despises the other but they are “bound by some evil force” that only death can separate. Their hermetic existence on an island fortress is upset by the arrival of Alice’s cousin Kurt (Daniel Lapaine). A self-made man who has just been promoted to quarantine master, Kurt finds Alice and Edgar’s situation too much to bear.
McPherson, who has previously directed Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, expertly draws on the strong parallels between Alice and Edgar’s domestic quarantine and the situation of Endgame‘s Hamm and Clov – all condemned to a dismal, empty existence in a sealed universe bereft of food, conversation and ideas. In particular, McPherson uses his famous ear for tone and cadence to bring out the lifeless despair of Alice and Edgar’s abortive back-and-forth exchanges, whether about fillet steaks or Alice’s piano playing. Moreover, McPherson also replicates a vital decision he made in his 2000 adaptation of Endgame for Beckett On Film: he makes it funny. As the character Nell says, “nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. McPherson’s rhythmic ear shows up the comic elements of a play that can easily be branded morose.
The grim comedy is buttressed by excellent performances. Varma is wonderfully vampish as Alice, and McNally brings to the surface Edgar’s thwarted authority. However, it is Lapaine, as the inscrutable Kurt, who is especially extraordinary, particularly in the scene where he bursts into a rage so violent that his face turns completely red and the veins rise in his neck.
Some aspects of the original play are lost in this adaptation. Strindberg’s text insists on a round set, mirroring the circular structure of the play. While Richard Kent’s crumbling set was impressive in its own right, it is hard not to think of this original injunction. The set is a seminal aspect of the staging, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt famously converted it, with great effect, into a boxing ring. Indeed, this play that thrives on confrontation would have worked even better on a traverse stage.
However, these are quibbles – McPherson has done a great service to Strindberg. When the playwright was criticised for his pessimism by his German translator, he followed The Dance of Death with a sequel, The Dance of Death II. The sequel is rarely performed – but this production at Trafalgar Studios makes a strong case for a revival, and for McPherson’s ability to give it new life.
The Dance of Death runs at Trafalgar Studios (Studio 2) until 5 January 2013. See the Donmar Warehouse website for more information.