The Dance of Death
Updated: May 11
Review: The Dance of Death, a co-production of Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Oxford Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath. On in Oxford until 11 June and on tour thereafter. Book your tickets in Oxford here.
[Disclosure: The Oxford Playhouse provided me with free tickets, a free programme and free drinks for the purposes of this review.]
I have a lot of questions about The Dance of Death – a play by Swedish writer August Strindberg written in the 1900s and adapted by Oscar winning play wright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. But the biggest question is – why?
A first rate performance by Lindsay Duncan as the wife, Alice.
Why have all these fabulous theatre companies collaborated to put this play together and why have all these absolutely extraordinary theatre professionals, at the top of their game, agreed to work on it? The production values of this play are excellent and the acting is first rate. The programme is probably one of the loveliest programmes I’ve ever seen – in the form of a beautifully presented copy of the text of the play.
It’s just that the play itself is so awful.
Lindsey Duncan as Alice and Hilton McRae as the husband, Edgar.
The story follows a couple who are just about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. The couple hate each other and their hateful and malicious behaviour has driven away all their friends and family. They live on a small island in a tiny community from which they are ostracised due to their intolerable behaviour. The wife’s cousin, Katrin, gets a job on the island and comes to stay. In the original text, the cousin is male, but the gender swap doesn't seem to give us any new insights or perspective on the text. Both the husband and wife are utterly vile to the cousin and to each other.
Hilton McRae as Edgar and Emily Bruni as the cousin, Katrin.
Most of the 80 minutes are spent watching the husband and wife shout about how much they hate other people, including each other. We do get to learn some of the husband’s backstory. Though if his backstory is supposed to explain why he has become such a vile person, then it is a superficial explanation indeed.
Hilton McRae and Lindsay Duncan.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn anything about the backstory of the female characters that explains their behaviour. Why does the wife stay with a husband who she wishes (loudly and often) would die a painful death? Why does the cousin stay when it is clear that doing so will harm her mental, and possibly her physical, health? Answering those questions would have provided some much more interesting insights.
Lindsay Duncan and Emily Bruni.
Whenever the husband goes off stage, both women spent the whole time repetitively talking about the husband. Neither the original text nor this contemporary adaptation would pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. I don’t mind that this play is superficial, pretentious and self-indulgent. There are lots of superficial, pretentious and self-indulgent plays, movies and books that I enjoy. I don’t even mind that it’s depressing.
Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae