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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Dance Of Death
Lyric Theatre Spring-Summer 2003

August Strindberg's examination of a dying and loveless marriage cannot by any stretch of the term be called a pleasant play. But his almost compulsive need to see just how ugly things can get has an admirable honesty about it, and the play offers an incomparable vehicle for actors not afraid to display themselves as deeply unsympathetic.

And on that level, for those willing to look into some depths of horror in the company of the unmatchable Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour, this revival can be strongly recommended.

Actually, like one or two others I've seen, Sean Mathais' production and Richard Greenberg's new adaptation actually bring out a warmth that I suspect Strindberg would have been amazed to find in his play. The couple - a military officer in a dead-end posting to a remote island in Sweden and the wife who feels she gave up a stage career for him - have settled into rituals of mutual loathing and insult that at first seem indistinguishable from love.

As McKellen and de la Tour speak them, the mutual insults and expressions of bored unhappiness ('Pleasure? The word sounds familiar. What does it mean?') come to sound like the love chatter of a couple who know each other so well that everything they say is infused with intimacy, while their shared contempt for all their acquaintances just makes their unacknowledged bond seem stronger. So, when the old friend played by Owen Teale comes to visit and they take turns complaining to him about each other, we really don't believe them.

It isn't until halfway through the evening, when they finally take their gloves off and do and say some deeply vicious things, not just to each other, but to the hapless visitor, that we realise we've been lulled into a false romanticism and should have been believing our ears all along, because they really meant what they were saying from the start. And when the outsider escapes and they're left more-or-less where they started, Strindberg's vision of hell on earth is all the more horrifying.

Frances de la Tour employs a wry wit that makes her anger seem at first no more than amused bitchiness, but the actress bravely exposes the character's desperation by letting her attempt to seduce the visitor turn obscenely ugly. Ian McKellen plays his character with a cheery grumpiness throughout, letting what seemed almost loving at the start morph into open sadism as he skewers his victims. Owen Teale has the somewhat thankless role of straight man, with little more to do than express the fly's horror as he is drawn into their web.

It is never pleasant, and there are stretches of ponderousness. But two actors in the prime of their powers in a play that makes you look where you may not wish to - this is exactly the thing that critics complain the West End offers too infrequently, and the true theatre-lover should not miss the opportunity.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dance of Death - Lyric 2003