Dance of Death

August Strindberg,adapted by Richard Greenberg
Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
(2003)

In view of the predominance of musicals and light comedies on Broadway, it is amazing that this primarily British production of Dance of Death, albeit adapted by a top young American playwright, should have debuted on Broadway the year before last. Dance of Death is a well-written and adapted play containing three good performances but it is hardly a barrel of laughs. Bizarrely, The American Element, Richard Greenberg's last play, had its world premiere at the Donmar in London.

The play is set within a Martello tower (beautifully designed by Robert Jones) on an island off Sweden. The inhabitants are the couple from hell. They make George and Martha from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? seem like genteel angels. Edgar, an army captain, played by Sir Ian McKellen, initially seems to be the most hateful person on earth. He lays into his wife, Alice (Frances de la Tour) with energetic glee and it soon transpires that he has spent the last 25 years beating her. Things were so bad that it was been necessary to send their surviving children to the mainland for their own safety.

Soon, though, Alice starts to give as good as she has received, although her spite is verbal rather than physical in nature and borders on mental torture. Strangely, amongst the often sado-masochistic hatred there is a strange kind of underlying love and dependence between the pair.

Into their lives comes a relation, Kurt (Owen Teale) who has returned to the island to become a quarantine officer. He had been forced to end his marriage ten years before; and has lost his children at the instigation of Edgar. He was also the man who brought Edgar and Alice together. His intrusion into the happily waged war initially seems to be a good thing. He persuades Edgar to stop drinking while at the same time charming Alice with the thought of passion and escape. In reality, he becomes a weapon that the pair use against each other.

The mental warfare is unremitting, and while Richard Greenberg's adaptation contains humour, most of the interest lies in its analysis of three deeply unhappy people and the way in which they interact. At the end, however, despite all of the vicious and vehement anger that has passed between Alice and Edgar, it is clear that they cannot live without each other. Sir Ian McKellen's creation of Edgar is impressive and all too real, while Frances de la Tour and Owen Teale give good support.

Inevitably, the main attraction for theatregoers will be the performances of the leading actors and under the direction of Sean Matthias, they do not let us down. The bonus is a well-paced adaptation that sheds real light on the way that unhappy people live together and need each other.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher