Theatre Review: Play Strindberg at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath
This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Dance of Death, the play written by August Strindberg in 1900, contains his darkest musings on the institution of marriage. In it, he prises apart the grimly sterile alliance of an army Captain and a former actress who have remained together, marooned on a remote island for the past twenty-five years, despite their obvious loathing of each other.
In 1968, Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt re-imagined Strindberg’s play as a boxing match set over twelve rounds, highlighting the adversarial nature of marriage and adding a bitterly savage strand of comedy, where in the original there’s only bleakness. Now Alistair Beaton, himself an accomplished playwright and satirist (one of the founders of Not the Nine O’clock News), has taken Dürrenmatt’s masterpiece and translated it afresh for a contemporary audience.
The first round finds Edgar, the Captain, and his wife, Alice, settled in an unhappy equilibrium, even though their servants are walking out and they’re pointedly not invited to the most glittering of social events. They may be devoid of small talk and certain of each other’s deficiencies, but it’s only the arrival on the island of Alice’s cousin Kurt that really disrupts the claustrophobic completeness of this couple’s rejection of each other and society as a whole. Kurt could have been the original match-maker in the disastrous pairing, a fickle husband who abandoned his children or possibly the man that Alice truly loved; the truth is impossible to discern in the ever-changing circles these characters trace around each other.
The set, designed by Max Jones and Ruth Hall, is a ring of fluorescent light which emphasizes this play’s non-naturalistic theatricality to the full and hosts some of the most miserable card games and unappreciated piano playing imaginable. The chittering telex adds a dystopian twist; it’s the sole source of news of Edgar and Alice’s children and the outside world and yet another source of conflict, as realisation dawns on the controlling Captain that his wife knows how to work it.
The boxing match setting transforms the audience into spectators, and there’s a heightened sense of involvement in shifting allegiances as the cast spar even-handedly throughout. Greg Hicks, Sally Dexter and Richard Clothier are equally magnificent in tearing strips off each other with unsparing, vitriolic splendour. Hicks is stunning in his portrayal of the Captain whose frequent blackouts eventually descend into gibbering paralysis and whose brilliant Dance of the Boyars is ignored by his supposed audience, both too busy playing the piano to watch what he’s doing.
Dürrenmatt turned Strindberg’s play into comedy, but it’s still brutal and sometimes difficult stuff, and Beaton’s translation has succeeded in retaining all the original viciousness. It’s a wonderfully watchable stalemate though; clearly directed by Nancy Meckler and communicated by three actors at the height of their powers.
Runs until 11th October 2014 | Photo by Simon Annand