Friday, 19 August 2022

Couple’s miserable married life has little meaning as drama

OH, the misery of our time: political turmoil, plummeting pound, economic stagnation; we need relief.

So to the Oxford Playhouse for what should be a fun romcom, a tale of a devoted married couple shacked up on an island.

Nope, yet more misery, I’m afraid; this couple is devoted only in its mutual detestation — they both need and hate each other and torment themselves until death, or possibly beyond.

The Dance of Death is an adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1900 play and, according to those who know, is the origin of much of modern theatre’s weirder pieces. On the face of it we have a couple in late middle age, played by Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae, holed up on a remote plague island and who never seem to leave their claustrophobic environment.

They abuse each other verbally, emotionally and physically. He tried to kill her once; she plays upon his heart condition to bring on his own demise. The Dance of Death is a venomous play exploring the antipathy which can develop between couples. Duncan’s character, Alice, was an actress and saw security in the army officer 10 years her senior.

Now, 30 years on, any magic has long gone to be replaced by dreary reality, irritation and frustration. They taunt and heckle each other but cannot be apart. There is no affection, only familiarity and it’s that which holds them together against their wishes.

Emily Bruni’s Katrin is parachuted into this as a new arrival on the island but known to the other two. She is meant to pour soothing balm on their fiery passions but instead inflames them all the more.

After that it all gets a bit weird with Katrin turning briefly into a vampire and taking a bite out of Alice’s neck, then the captain has a heart attack and all seems lost.

But they all recover and review, then start it all over again — a version of hell, then?

The set reflects this: it’s a small room, using only half the stage.

Duncan, McRae and Bruni are good enough but possibly not helped by the direction. We know them to be fine actors but occasionally they seem wooden and we can only assume they were instructed to be that. Overall, though, this play needs the audience to think about its meaning and that’s not a good thing. If it doesn’t present straight away then is it working as drama?

You can see why some people might revere Strindberg, certainly I could see elements of Waiting for Godot, Look Back in Anger, Theatre of the Absurd and even Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos... once it was pointed out to me by some friends also there on the night.

I suppose the point is that this play preceded all those.

Mike Rowbottom

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