Swedish dramatist August Strindberg wrote The Dance of Death in 1900. Penned after failed marriages, it’s the story of a man and a woman as far from experiencing marital bliss as one could imagine and, with a production directed by Judy Davis and translated by May-Brit Akerholt, the play concludes Belvoir’s 2018 season.
Providing inspiration for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, The Dance of Death tells a story set on a fictitious island off the coast of Sweden. An irascible retired military captain, Edgar (Colin Friels), and his wife and former actress, Alice (Pamela Rabe), live a miserable life, owing to their fervent hatred of each other. Theirs is an isolated existence in an old artillery fortress, once used as a prison, where guests are a rarity – the two are not well-liked (nor do they seek to be) and even their maids eventually tire of their inimical behaviour, leaving Edgar and Alice to their own devices. The couple’s unyielding and noxious warring with one another seems to repel everyone with whom they interact and Alice’s only real communication with outsiders occurs via telegraph.
When we meet Edgar and Alice, it’s the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary – an occasion Edgar wants to celebrate. But Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Toby Schmitz), arrives on the island to take up the position of Master of Quarantine. Given the couple’s willingness to share their disdain for one another with anyone who will listen, it doesn’t take long for Kurt to witness the toxicity of the marriage. As he learns of Edgar’s integral role in his losing custody of his own children, Kurt is spurred on by Alice to execute a spiteful plot against her despotic husband.
On paper, Belvoir’s production of The Dance of Death is a must-see event, starring two of the finest actors in the country (Friels and Rabe) and directed by another of our most accomplished artists (the last time Davis occupied the director’s chair here, it was for the highly-acclaimed production of Faith Healer, also starring Friels.) But while it’s entertaining in parts, visually striking and affords us an opportunity to get a sense of the talent before us, this isn’t a production that leaves a lasting impression.
A key part of the problem is the play itself. It is bleak from the outset and, despite comedic moments, that never changes. It delivers us characters that are unsympathetic and essentially one dimensional. We don’t become invested in their plight and while we may ask what set the couple on their wretched course, those insights aren’t forthcoming. It makes it all too difficult to become interested in their world.
Friels is convincing as the oppressive military officer and Rabe has some memorable moments of comedy when Alice gives us amusing glimpses of her former self as an actress, but you don’t get a real sense of the total and utter mutual loathing that seems to be implied by the text. Schmitz does what he can with the role of Kurt, but these first-class performers have a tough ask in trying to create a believable world inhabited by these characters.
Probably the highlight of this production is set designer Brian Thomson’s physical representation of the fortress and island. The actors perform on an expansive circular stage separated from the audience by a moat. There is something patently macabre about the fortress at first glance and it’s a fitting realisation of the home of Edgar and Alice – much like the prison it was before, the fortress separates the two from the rest of society and is enough to immediately deter any outsiders from wanting to enter. You can almost smell the musty air its owners would inhale. That sense of a cold and isolated prison is magnified by Matthew Scott’s wonderfully dark lighting choices, while Paul Charlier’s compositions are appropriately unnerving.
While it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to see Friels and Rabe on stage together and leading a production in which they team with similarly top-tier creatives, this production of The Dance of Death is ultimately not a strong showcase of the sheer heft of accumulated talent.
THE DANCE OF DEATH – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 23 December, 2018
Venue: Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444