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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Dances of Death
Gate Theatre Summer 2013

One of world drama's most powerful depictions of diseased minds and diseased relationships is made even more intense by the simple expedient of condensing, as Howard Brenton reduces both Strindberg's Dance of Death and its less well-known sequel into a single evening. 

The result couldn't ever be called pleasant, but it is a mesmerising study in pure malice and also the occasion for three extraordinary performances. 

In a dead-end Swedish military outpost a Captain and his wife have lived for thirty years in mutual loathing so that their sniping, however sharp, has taken on an air of familiar and even enjoyable ritual. But the visit of an old friend provides new meat, sharpening their senses and bringing out their very worst, both at each other's expense and the innocent bystander's.

(The sequel, which makes up Act Two here, is somewhat weaker than the excoriating original, just continuing the almost unmotivated nastiness while showing it carried on into the next generation.) 

Howard Brenton's adaptation cuts almost all hints of a residual affection between the couple, leaving us with uninterrupted nastiness, and shifts the balance so that it is the husband who generates most of the evil, his wife generally reduced to passionately reacting and racing to keep up with him. 

What has made Strindberg's play fascinating for more than a century is not just the hint of what we recognise as reality beneath what we hope is exaggeration, but the almost operatic intensity of emotion which is theatrically thrilling even if ugly, and the opportunities it offers actors prepared to let themselves go. 

And a major attraction of Tom Littler's production is watching performers who are fully capably of large emotions pulling out all the stops in service of the play. 

Michael Pennington makes the Captain a monster of scatter-shot hatred, prepared to attack anyone within range and almost visibly licking his lips in bloodlust. He really has nothing against the visitor, but purely because the man is more vulnerable than his battle-scarred wife, he sets out to destroy him on every level. 

Not even a series of heart attacks and strokes can slow him down, as Pennington strides the stage with an animal-like forcefulness driven by the man's malice and his undisguised delight in conquest. 

The adaptation leaves Linda Marlowe little to do but react with horror and rage at her husband's perfidy, but Marlowe is also a performer of strong presence and large emotions, and her curses and her almost-in-passing manipulation of the visitor to her ends carry as much weight of can't-look-away horror as the Captain's actions. 

The third major role of the visitor is often just a thankless straightman and passive victim. But Christopher Ravenscroft, through subtle underplaying, makes him a strong third in this vicious triangle, frequently stealing scenes just through his stillness and investing the man with a dignity that comes from surviving the uninterrupted onslaughts. 

The younger characters in the second half are underwritten roles not particularly well played, but they do not detract from the power and intensity of the whole – two hours that fascinate and hold us with their depiction of the worst of human nature, presented by some of the finest performances this year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dances of Death - Gate Theatre- 2013

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