Review: Dances of Death, Gate Theatre

“My nature may be flawed but I struggle to overcome it”

Is there anything more annoying than someone else having the same good idea as you at more or less the same time. Given the length of time it must take to actually commission a new version of a play and bring it to the stage, who knows when or whether these two coincided but either way, London now has its second new adaptation of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death in six months. Conor McPherson refreshed the play as part of the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios 2 but here at the Gate Theatre, Howard Brenton has taken a slightly different tack, incorporating the lesser seen second part to create Dances of Death

The play, as with much of Strindberg’s work, is a barrel of laughs. Edgar and Alice live on a remote Swedish island which is dominated by a military barracks but though they have been married for nearly 30 years, their relationship has deteriorated into a bitterly toxic mess as their disappointments in each other and the world around them has poisoned them to the point where it is this very hatred that sustains them. So much so, that the arrival of Kurt, a figure from their past, merely offers a new dimension to their war games as opposed to a potential exit strategy. It is vicious, bitter stuff, and in the intimacy of the Gate, ought to be near-unbearable.

But it never quite got under my skin and convinced me of its raw animosity. Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe, excellent actors both, felt a little mannered in Tom Littler’s production, not quite surrendering entirely to the bleakness of Strindberg’s worldview. Why this is becomes more apparent with the introduction of a new generation in the second half, as we visit the children of our trio and see how the enmities of the past continue to shape the present but also get a hint of redemptive hope that just doesn’t feel entirely earned.

I liked both Edward Franklin and Eleanor Wyld (still one of my ones to watch) as the next generation but the way in which Edgar and Kurt’s rivalry trundled on lost much of the venom of the sustained onslaught of the first half – just how dense is Kurt…the play doesn’t benefit from giving him more exposure at all. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more had I not seen The Dance of Death so recently but I can’t help but feel that this production doesn’t quite live up to the considerable reputation of this theatre and the fierce emotion that it often provokes. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 6th July

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