This review expands an alternative version originally published by The Reviews Hub.
One part of the theatre ecosystem has taken a little longer to get back on its feet than any others and that is the opportunity to see some of the very best European theatre touring shows in London. And although there are plenty of European theatremakers who have made their homes here, seeing how familiar productions are interpreted quite differently in a stage tradition that is not always the same as our own is an important part of the ecosystem and a chance to reflect on how and why classic texts continue to offer up new and resonant interpretations. Usually, European productions find a home at the Barbican but The National Theatre of Norway has gone west to Notting Hill for the UK transfer of Dance of Death performed in the original Norwegian with English surtitles. This often thrilling production that explores the melodrama and violence in a 25-year marriage is compelling stuff, demonstrating how to make 120-year-old material feel brand new.
August Strindberg’s play is a glorious dystopian vision in which three over-familiar people tear each other to pieces for 85-minutes. The remote island setting and isolation of the central couple Alice and Edgar is palpable, particularly in this sparsely-staged National Theatre of Norway production that creates claustrophobia and distance between the characters in both a physical and emotional sense. Drama is filled with duos trapped in their own version of hell, from the oddities of Beckett including Waiting for Godot and Endgame, to works like Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams, all of which place their protagonists in complicated love-hate relationships with no way to escape their situation even though much of the drama focuses on the futility of their attempts to do so.
Strindberg essentially invents this concept here, long before it became an absurdist standard by placing a married couple at the heart of the play and exploring the complex dynamic between them, initially as a pairing, but later when old friend Kurt joins them and a triangle of sorts is created, shifting the power structure. However, Strindberg continues to execute his drama as primarily a series of duologues and only occasionally bringing the three characters together to examine how the balance has changed between them in the intervening scenes.
We are equally used to a third element signifying a change of power, an outsider whose purpose is to distort and intrude, usually claiming some kind of ascendancy over the other characters at the expense of one or both who are consequently displaced – and we largely have Pinter to thank for this model. But Strindberg has quite another purpose in mind, using Kurt to bring to the surface the various issues and ugliness in the lives of Alice and Edgar but ultimately drawing him into their problems and style of interaction rather than providing a potential solution to it – although Alice certainly (and perhaps even Edgar to an extent) believe Kurt will break the impasse between them. Strindberg is looking at the human capacity for self-destruction and degradation, a shameless need to exert power and influence over others that emerges from an emotion that was once love but has since crystallised into hate. That neither spouse attempts to conceal their nature from their guest is a clue to how far beyond redemption they are and why the creation of a mini-hell on this small island consumes them all.
Directed by Marit Moum Aune, this production creates a really strong sense of corrupted abandonment in which the two leads, despised within the community for reasons that the writer does not explain, have withdrawn into a cycle of loathed existence. Their routine annoys them and they live only to torment and hate the other, the only thing sustaining them in their vastly unvarying lives. That Edgar has a military authority to govern seems almost ludicrous and while essential to the plot following Kurt’s arrival, his lack of respect within the town and consequent inability to buy goods leaves the couple scratching an existence and creates further reasons to despise each other. Their life is the same every day, their interactions with others few and filled with the contempt of service providers and the privation of their living arrangements only worsens the punishment of their enforced co-existence.
But Aune notes a kind of mutual joy in their misery, even flickers of residual sexual attraction that lingers between them as the couple’s physical encounters border on the flirtatious even when Edgar violently grabs at his wife’s face and body. Whether he intends to harm her or wants to possess her is ambiguous in this production and neither option is fully confirmed, although it does make sense of the long years spent together as well as their continued engagement in a dangerous kind of game that both could have left or ended years before but chose not to. Life without each other is almost as inconceivable as more life together.
That this cycle of relationships exists outside of the central marriage as well is something that Strindberg explores during the few days that the audience spends with these characters, unpicking their intertwined history and how it affects their present. The misremembered idea that Kurt introduced the couple is repeated, leading to discussions on whether he is their cupid or the person to blame for the quarter century torture that has ensued. There is a strong chemistry between Alice and Kurt in the National Theatre of Norway’s production, noting a pre-existing frisson between them that may finally come to fruition more than a decade since they last saw one another.
But Strindberg is far more cynical about this than the audience and our conditioned notions of movie love stories suggest, encouraging us to believe in happy endings. Instead, Alice and Kurt fall into the same pattern of behaviour later in the play with an equivalent feisty attraction meeting potential violence and the wearing experience of too much of one person’s company with little respite. They bicker as Alice and Edgar do until the once abstemious Kurt falls into the same alcoholic pattern as his friend – is Alice the cause, this production wonders, as a common factor between the men, or is this just what all relationships are like in the end?
The second strand of this complicated dance that Aune’s production emphasises is the use of wider family members for blackmail purposes and as a tool for extorting compliance from others. This is principally Edgar’s trick and several references are made to Alice’s children being taught to despise her by their father, kept from her, she believes, by the lies their father has told them. Part of her decision to stay is the result of this use of her children. Similarly, later in the play, Edgar does the same with Kurt, a man whose relationship with his own sons is not straightforward, with custody awarded to his wife. Whether or not he abandoned his family is something Edgar is able to use to control Kurt’s time on the island and determine his future. Family for Strindberg is just another emotional connection that can be manipulated and Aune’s interpretation makes the separate dilemmas faced by Alice and Kurt quite central to their continued compliance with the demands this island places on them.
It is the wish for an ending that captivates all of them in different ways. The desire to break the cycle leads them all to terrible things and a series of spiteful acts, but it is Edgar’s health that creates the most dramatic opportunity. But Strindberg quickly suggests the double dilemma his possible demise would create for Alice, potentially evicting her from the home she has lived in for 25-years with no rights as a military widow, while assurance from the doctor of his longevity may equally encourage him to seek alternative comfort, leaving her unprotected and without finance in a period that was not kind to divorced women.
The central drama is melodramatic and excessive, sometimes aiming for big performances where perhaps the British tendency is to lower the mood and underplay the bombast or shrill emotional encounters which is quite interesting to observer. Yet it works really effectively here with Aune using a more allegorical staging to balance out and make space for the intricacies of these intense exchanges that bubble and spill out of the characters without any attempt to contain them. The lack of emotional restraint, the inability and unwillingness to hold back love, hate, passion or even mild indifference fills the stage instead and Aune’s approach does enough to suggest the wildness, disrepair and stranded state of a group of people who have not only forgotten how to live in society but no longer care.
Even Børsum’s set is in three parts that might be part of the same room but may equally be entirely separate locations, in some sense representing the three entities of this play who try but fail to come together. Sometimes characters walk across the breadth of it and others contain themselves to particular areas. Aune directs in one continuous flow with few obvious breaks between scenes or moments of complete darkness. At every point a character is onstage contemplating what is happening to their life or what the options might be, adding a growing and unremitting tension to the production that gives the audience as little relief from this situation as it does the characters.
Alice is such an interesting and impressive woman in many ways, demonstrating a level of forbearance and endurance that is admirable. But she also has an equal capacity for cruelty, just as strong as her husband and really quite unaffected by the possibility of his demise. Her complete disinterestedness in him and active attempts to harm are brilliantly realised in Pia Tjelta’s performance that vacillates between seductress, bored housewife and vicious avenger, all the while grasping at anything that will help her to escape, although she is never exactly sympathetic. Whether her feelings for Kurt are real or convenient is something Tjelta plays with throughout the show but having embarked on a particular course, she is determined to make him her life raft but seems unsurprised when she ends up back where she started.
Jon Øigarden’s performance as Edgar is sometimes harder to fathom, a largely comic approach relying on a childlike explosion of anger or sulkiness that tends to suck the air out of the room with over-elaborate fits that leaves the audience unsure whether Edgar is really sick or deliberately feigning illness to win the argument. But Øigarden makes Edgar quite dangerous, there is real threat in the way he mauls his wife and pure calculation in the latter half of the play when he tries to punish Alice and Kurt quite separately for their perceived failures towards him. No cuckold, this Edgar may have little respect in town but somehow he still has power.
Thorbjørn Harr’s is initially the only grown up in the room, an old friend dropping by and hoping to find welcome. Instead his seriousness instantly rankles, at least with Edgar who tries to drawn him into a battle about his family while Alice hopes to stir up old emotions between them. That they both succeed and drag Kurt into their game is well managed by Harr who shows his character’s gradual decline really effectively and how easily a good and decent man can be broken – underpinning Strindberg’s point that humanity is never far from degradation and it actually takes very little to destroy the thin surface of civilisation and politeness that we all cling to.
The National Theatre of Norway’s production of Dance of Death only has a short run but is an interesting and meaningful exploration of the excesses of emotion and desire in Strindberg’s play and the destructive routine of a long unhappy marriage. That this takes place in a period setting explains the limitations placed on character behaviour but Aune’s production and the complex central performances make this a really worthwhile experience and a fascinating opportunity to see Norwegian approaches to staging a classic Scandinavian text.
Dance of Death is at the Coronet Theatre until 31 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog