In the season of Nutcrackers, Christmas puddings, and panto, I thought nothing would break up the sugary monotony better than a little bit of Scandinavian realism. That’s right, right in the middle of Christmas week I booked myself a ticket for Strindberg’s Dance of Death at the Trafalgar Studios. Counter-programming? You’re darned tooting. I figured after Jack and the Beanstalk, the Messiah, and two Dick Whittingtons I’d be VERY ready for something bleak that made me feel like humanity wasn’t worth saving.
As it turns out, I was TOTALLY right. The Dance of Death was so negative and full of hate – and so beautifully active – that it (perversely) left me feeling elated at the end of the evening. I love Strindberg for his incredibly realistic portrayals of the twisted outcomes of people’s long-term interference in each other’s minds. In this case we’ve got Edgar (Kevin R McNally) and Alice (Indira Varma), two people who’ve been married for just shy of twenty-five years and seem to have hated each other for most of it. Edgar’s in the army and has a heavy drinking habit; Alice is proud and beautiful and conniving, but no more so than he is. He craves death; she is anxious for him to get on with it so she can move on to a better phase of her life; he’s holding on just to keep her from getting remarried. Was there ever a stronger picture of marital concord?
And yet somehow, they stay together, and the arrival of an old friend (Kurt, Daniel Lapaine) just seems like an opportunity for them to throw new balls of shit at each other. Kurt, of course, has no idea what he’s got into. Does he need to save Alice? Does he need to save (the seriously ill) Edgar? Or, in fact, does he need to save himself? He manages to get into a compromised enough position that he winds up on his stomach, on the floor, licking Alice’s boot. I never figured out to what extent Alice was playing him for a fool or Edgar was playing both of them in his own game; at the end, I think, maybe it was Strindberg playing with all of us, making us wonder just what it was going on between this couple for so long. A great mystery, but with great performances that kept me thoroughly absorbed in the paint-peeling spitefulness being splashed around like bucketsfull of acid. Strindberg sold me, the actors sold me, and somehow, at the very end, I found myself laughing at Edgar and Alice and the ridiculous situation they were in. Life is just a game, and if you can’t have a little fun playing with each other’s minds, you just haven’t been trying hard enough.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012. It runs through January 5th. My tickets were about £25 quid and it was well worth it!)