It takes two to Tango, and in the Dance of Death, we witness a perverse tango of love and hate, domination and submission, mutual derision and maddening dependency. Edgar and his wife Alice have shared almost 25 years of marriage, an interminable prison sentence of soul-destroying bitterness with only death as an exit. The continually burning hell they have created for each other is occasionally fanned into a blazing inferno when another person stumbles into their marital war and whom both sides quickly try to conscript for the ensuring battle of sadistic emotional cruelty.
Strindberg’s play is set in Stockholm100 years ago, on an island called ‘Hell Hole’, inside a former military prison. Robert Jones has created a stage design that physically describes the inner desolation of Edgar and Alice’s life. The dark gloomy circular room with a metal staircase that on the upper level resembles a prison walkway creates an atmosphere of oppression and emotional asphyxiation.
Edgar is an ageing artillery Captain who has failed to climb the military ranks, a fact that Alice, his wife, takes great delight in reminding him. He blames the failure of his career upon his colleagues whom he dismisses as “scumbags” and “scoundrels”. Alice had a career in the theatre that came to an end when she married Edgar, like Edgar she too believes she had great potential and it is her husband who is the target of her venomous accusations of being stifled.
The children of this unhappy couple fled the family home at the earliest opportunity and though they only communicate with their parents by means of telegraphs; this does not stop Edgar and Alice using them as hostages in their emotional dramas. It is into this dismal state of affairs that Alice’s cousin Kurt enters when he is posted to the town as quarantine officer.
Edgar is now dying and as such this terrorises him, but delights Alice! This means that they now have only one last opportunity to dance their macabre waltz of shared revulsion. When this turns into a dizzying frenzy that threatens to destroy them both they are pulled back from the brink by the terrible realisation that like two grotesque vampires they need to feed off their mutual hatred to give their lives any existence at all, and so they tranquilly resign themselves to their wretched marriage.
Ian McKellen gives a masterful performance. Edgar’s cruel cutting remarks are issued with a casual indifference that adds to their sting. He delights in his boorishness at home but preens himself like a peacock when he travels into town. Alice rightly describes his vanity and coarseness when she disdainfully dismisses him with the remark “You are a despot with the character of a slave”. He looks tired and broken and yet his face is full of rancour and scorn for others, until in the face of death he becomes docile and reconciled to the fact that his death will be as barren as his life.
Francis de la Tour as Alice matches in tone and anger every ounce of venom that leaches from her husband. She wears her cruelty like a badge of honour and looks physically gratified with opportunity that presents itself for her to express her hatred for her husband. Equally, when it looks as if their world is about to tear apart irreparably she expresses her grief with equal vigour.
Owen Teale is disappointing as Kurt; He looks lost on stage with McKellen and Francis de la Tour. He appears too anguished and pensive; I never once thought he was optimistic of redeeming something worthwhile from the deathly relationship that Edgar and Alice had created.
A superb production that bristles with venomous humour, try as you might, one cannot help but become embroiled in the intrigues of this love/hate dance of death. This tragic/dark comedy is superbly acted and I feel confident will win many awards and well-deserved acclaim.
(Production photos by Manuel Harlan).
Next Review from one of our readers
My wife and I attended the matinee performance of ‘Dance of Death’ on Wednesday 16th April. I really did want to see this play since its Broadway premiere in 2001 with Helen Mirren playing Alice and of course Sir Ian Mckellen as Edgar if only I could have made the trip to New York. Fear not as the play comes to the London stage for a limited season, and marks the return for Sir Ian Mckellen after a four year absence.
In the London production the role of Alice is played by Frances De La Tour which is a role she has played before with Alan Bates, also in the London production is Owen Teal as Kurt. The story of ‘Dance of Death’ is a dark and sinister piece yet an injection of comedy is apparent throughout the play. The play is set in Stockholm 100 years ago inside the tower of an island fortress appropriately named by Alice and Edgar as “Little Hell”
The start of the play begins as the audience takes their seats; Ian Mckellen paces the wonderfully designed set by Robert Jones and is then joined by Frances De La Tour who just by their presence really set the tone of the events that follow leading to ‘The Dance of Death’ The action and the story begins to unfold with venomous exchanges between Edgar & Alice about who is right and wrong in their almost 25 years of marriage. Alice takes every delight to remind Edgar that he has not climbed the ranks from artillery Captain, which he replies with splintering venom and blames the “scumbags” and “scoundrels” for the down fall of his career.
The exchanges between the two main characters is frantic and fast, but at times very sad and devious, even the children have fled the family home. Alice’s Cousin Kurt enters and tries to help Edgar and Alice but he realises that his efforts maybe in vane. Edgar uses the phrase “Just X it out” this is one piece of theatre that I will never “X out”
The acting performances from Mckellen and De La Tour are superbly brilliant; this is acting at its very best! This is fantastic theatre ‘Dance of Death’ allows the actors to almost live the parts. I salute the performances of Sir Ian Mckellen and Frances De La Tour, and a convincing performance from Owen Teal. I would rate Dance of Death a must see play with a must see cast the play is worth the double the ticket price just to see Ian Mckellen perform on stage.
This is simply theatre to die for, everything is there great story, wonderful direction by Sean Mathias and new adaptation by Richard Greenberg all this and performances for 2 hours and 25 minutes of pure brilliant acting and a powerful presence from both Mckellen & Tour this is a real masterpiece. Get your tickets now….
What other critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Funniest and most poignant evening on London stage." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A tremendous production of an unarguably great play."MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "McKellen, in one of his finest performances.....Frances de la Tour matches him perfectly." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Delighted with Sean Matthias’s revival." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Never sufficiently manages to grip or engage."
External links to full reviews from popular press