Shimmering darkness

August Strindberg’s Dance of Death is one of the nightmare glories of the theatre. It is almost fathomlessly black, a tragic melodrama that ripples with laughter. John Matthias’ production at the Sydney Festival is one of those rare productions that is touched with a genius that matches that of the dramatist.

Dance of Death represents, neat, the kind of vision Albee mixed with soda in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play on which Strindberg’s is a palpable influence. It is the story of a couple who experience a deep loathing for each other which nonetheless constitutes the greatest bond they have. It takes on much that could as easily be called love.

They snipe at and betray each other, they cheat, lie and snarl and in the midst of it all, crawling towards death or oblivion, there they are, chained to each other.

It is also extraordinarily funny because the way in which both Edgar (Ian McKellen) and Alice (Frances de la Tour) distract themselves from their pain is by banter, wit, self-mockery and by mocking the other person.

The play is a tour-de-force of light and dark, empowered by the adaptation of the American playwright Richard Greenburg which is at every point idiomatic, lithe and full of spunk and slime.

The production is full of movement  and it helps that Robert Jones has created a cavernous space with a steel staircase that gives the drama a vertical reach  and also functions as an abstract emblem of the emotional contortion and towering madness that characterise this vision.

Ian McKellen is superb in the way he creates a kind of unremitting savagery and cruelty while investing Edgar with great feeling. And, beyond this, with a human reality that the actor wears like a skin.

It is not a hammy performance, nor does McKellen milk what he is doing. It looks at first like a quiet performance that begins in character acting then hits the heroic without any phase of self-glamorisation. The performance has absolute credibility and truth.

Frances de la Tour rises to meet him in a tremendous performance as Alice. Where McKellen is crusty she is vinegar or sugar, where he staggers like a bull or lunges like a viper, she is slatternly, seductive, full of outraged passion or sniping her way to perdition. She also penetrates to some bedrock of emotional authenticity that takes away the breath. This too is a performance to die for.

Owen Teale plays the friend who is a fall guy for each of these monsters in turn. Teale sustains this less glittering  role with integrity and sureness of touch.

This is a great production of a play shimmering with light and shrouded in  shadow, representing what the modern theatre can do with one of its greatest plays. 

Peter Craven is editor of Quarterly Essay and Best Australian Essays.



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