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Theatre Review: Dance of Death

2 March 16 words: Gareth Morgan
'It's an absurd, cyclical story which exposes the very worst of three people who regularly profess to love each other'
Dance of Death, Lace Market theatre

Photograph: Lace Market Theatre

In the week following the announcement of the date for our possible last dance with the EU, The Lace Market Theatre continue their studio season with another European gem in August Strindberg's The Dance of Death.

The Swedish playwright's 1900 drama follows the domestic tribulations of husband and wife Edgar and Alice, a retired artillery captain and a former actress taken away from the stage by their marriage, in their isolated island home. Their children no longer live with them as each has turned the children against the other. They'll soon be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary and their verbal jousting is further exacerbated by the arrival of Kurt, Alice's cousin, for whom she has always harboured a bit of crush. With Kurt's entrance into their pokey little home, the couple raise the stakes.

Alice regularly tries to goad the unwell Edgar into bringing on a heart-attack by playing the music to his party-piece dance, The Entry of the Boyars - although this wasn't Strindberg's first choice of music: he'd originally wanted the Jonathan Creek music - Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre. However Henrik Ibsen had used it 4 years previous in his John Gabriel Borkman. This is the eponymous deadly dance, and it very nearly succeeds. Edgar, retaliating, threatens to cut her out of his will. The story charges through the pitch-black material, teetering on the fine line between tragedy and comedy - although for me always staying on the side of the former, until we arrive back at the impasse of the beginning. It's an absurd, cyclical story which exposes the very worst of three people who regularly profess to love each other.

Dance of Death, Lace Market theatre

Photograph: Lace Market Theatre

In its performance here, however, the jokes land a bit too well. The darkness of the script, under Paul Johnson's direction, feels camp and hammy. There are moments of intolerable cruelty, misery and despair in the script but they often appeared more like Are You Being Served? Fraser Wanless stands out and is fantastic fun as tyrannical Edgar, although it does feel as the whole piece is delivered in a sonorous ‘acting’ voice rather than something more natural. Kareena Sims, as Alice, and Graeme Jennings, Kurt, however are on opposite ends of the actor's spectrum: she often veering into the melodramatic and he as wooden as a post, especially when Kurt is overcome with carnal desire - which got some of the loudest hoots of the night.

But this is also a praiseworthy production. The simple set is the best I've seen in the Lace Market's bar-cum-studio, made up of a driftwood-like panel and just the minimum of stage props, designed by Oliver Lovely, and there's an evocative sound-design from Gareth Morris. However, I struggled to really get into the direction and staging of Strindberg's caustic and brilliant script as it ends up being more panto than pensive.

To the Lace Market's credit it's a great accompanying piece of programming to their Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from earlier in the season, although it runs over a much shorter running time, and worth going to see if you're interested in playwriting. It's a super example of Strindberg's work, which we've seen evidence of throughout plays ever since, with characters swinging from mood to mood, raw emotion and jagged edges. Just, for me, this production wasn't quite that - I did see it on its first night so let's hope it finds its own edge during the run.

Dance of Death runs at the Lace Market Theatre from Thursday 3 March until Saturday 5 March 2016.

Lace Market website 

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