Dance of Death

August Strindberg
National Theatre of Norway
Coronet Theatre

Pia Tjelta and Jon Øigarden in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta, Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta, Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton
Pia Tjelta, Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr in Dance of Death Credit: Tristram Kenton

Maeterlinckian symbolism and Munch’s angst find their way into Strindberg’s play, which dissects the everyday hell that is marriage and other people. He wrote Dance of Death in 1900—it feels personal. It is. His existentialist legacy lingers in Huis Clos (1944) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). And many a film and television drama—provide your own allusions…

On a fortified island in the Swedish archipelago, where a trip to Copenhagen is a trip to the real world, a couple are marking their 25th wedding anniversary. Celebrating would be the wrong word. Bitter, angry words are spoken, recriminations fly.

He is a ranting tyrant, a captain who will never make major because all on the island hate him. She gave up an acting career. Trapped in a cocoon of their own making, children estranged, hatred, a possessive hatred, is what they feed on. Prometheus bound and livers eaten.

It is a patriarchal society and Edgar plays that up to the hilt. Alice has her female wiles, which she turns on Kurt, her cousin, who visits them reluctantly. He has business on the island and former history with both of them. Edgar caused his divorce and the loss of Kurt’s children in a custody battle. No love lost there, then.

Edgar has health issues, a dodgy heart, which he uses to full dramatic controlling effect. Jon Øigarden seems to have stepped out of an absurdist comedy to play him, collapsing in cataleptic pratfalls, shouting in Norwegian and American English. It feels contemporary yet they are in period costumes.

Are they for real or playacting? Could be both. The attention is mostly on him. And he’s a prodigious liar, winding Kurt up about his son and Alice about his will. Arrogant, too: “I exist, therefore God exists”.

Kurt and Alice have a sexual encounter, but mild Kurt shocks with his vampiric bite and she turns against him, deciding he’s a hypocrite and her husband, whom she hates with a passion, is the real man. Make of that what you will.

A metaphor for life: love, hate, it’s all the same thing. We are all in hell, in purgatory. Looking around at the state of the world today, Strindberg is not wrong: we are all in A Dance of Death.

Performed in Norwegian with English surtitles (translation Kjell Askildsen), The National Theatre of Norway, directed by Marit Moum Aune, in a new trimmed version of about 85 minutes with no interval, ought be tight, but feels epic.

There are plenty of laughs of recognition from the audience, but maybe I’ve had enough of bitterness and hate, for it doesn't rattle my cage. Talking of cages—no birds in cages on the set, but plenty of stuffed wildlife. It needs to be more eviscerating, more savage.

Øigarden, shrill in his pathologically manic hatred, tries to evoke pity with his astounding faints. Pia Tjelta’s Alice, in period costume, could have stepped out of a Munch painting—and she does step out of the play to address us. Thorbjørn Harr’s Kurt is pure Ibsen, conflicted, confused. More John Osborne kitchen sink vitriol is needed.

Nils Petter Molvær’s musical score ramps up the atmosphere, and Even Børsum’s set, lit by Agnethe Tellefsen, is the best thing about the production. A black frame of a house on a patchy ground of seaside grasses and plants, with a back projection of misty blue, it tells you all you need to know. Is it real or surreal?

A telegraph machine, their only contact with the outside world, ticks and clicks above their heads. The furniture is sparse: chaise longue, table, chair, drinks side table. It is enough. Kurt swings off the house frame. No walls to bounce off…

Portrait of a stale marriage, twenty-five years locked into a symbiotic hatred, it is the fuel that keeps them alive. What misery, that man hands on to man, “it deepens like a coastal shelf”. She says she will laugh when he dies; he says he is happy to die. Is it bravado or fear?

The cycle of life: the opening scene is the same as the last scene—what’s for supper… and on we sail into the abyss. But we are in it already. Are they already dead?

Coincidentally, or is it something in the air, Dance of Death, directed by Conor McPherson, is on Radio 3 this Sunday evening. I shall be at a funeral.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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