Dance of Death

The Coronet Theatre is once again hosting The National Theatre of Norway, who have arrived with their take on August Strindberg’s dark matrimonial drama Dance of Death. Strictly speaking it is Dance of Death I, as Strindberg wrote a second play Dance of Death II that places the couple in a stronger financial position as opposed to the impoverished state we find them in this play.

A heavy piece that embraces Strindberg’s gloom and despair

Written in Swedish, it has been translated into Norwegian by Eva Sharp with surtitles in English which appear on large tv screens downstage left and right. The version of the script we read is therefore an approximation to what we hear and presumably lacks many of the nuances and much of the imagery of the original. Claiming also to have comic elements one suspects that, while there are a few laughs, some of the humour might also have been lost.

In any language, it’s a heavy piece that embraces Strindberg’s gloom and despair under the direction Marit Moum Aune. Placing the couple on opposite sides of the stage for many of the exchanges highlights the distance between them as does their often aggressive physicality even when closer together. Set on a remote, sparsely inhabited island off the coast of Sweden Edgar (Jon Øigarden), a retired artillery captain, who has never lost his commanding ways, lives there with his wife, Alice (Pia Tjelta), a former actress. They are about to celebrate (hardly the word) a significant wedding anniversary: the 25th dysfunctional year of an angry relationship in which they freely hurl their proclamations of hatred for each other across the room.

This diurnal round of abuse which shows every sign of continuing ad nauseam; it would be just a matter of who gave in or gave up first. Today, however, the ritual is interrupted by the arrival of Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Thorbjørn Harr), whose conversations reveal even more of he family’s dark side. Not only has Edgar upset the entire community in which he lives, to the point that he is now a social outcast, but he also conspired with Kurt’s former wife to ensure he was not given custody of the children. Edgar and Alice had already played off each of their own children against the other parent until both offspring left home and dissociated themselves. Venom runs deep in these circles and it’s not long before Kurt and Alice, who clearly have a past together which they are willing to flirtingly revive, begin to conspire against Edgar. Further complexities ensue around Edgar’s health, the contents of his will and various other matters before events have gone full circle and life returns to it’s vengeful norm, without Kurt and with a glimpse of affection. But the inescapability of their situation is highlighted, perhaps questionably, by repeating the opening few pages of the script at the end.

In their respective roles the trio give strong performances. Øigarden remains disgruntled throughout, reaching peaks of rage and moments of deathly resignation, though his falls to the floor often seem comically out of place. Tjelta conveys the bitterness of a woman who sacrificed her own career and life to be left devoid of fulfilment and ravaged with resentment. It is only in her moments with Kurt that there is a glimmer of what might have been, but even that seems no more than a game. Harr, meanwhile soulfully portrays with resignation Kurt’s regrets and the unfortunate hand that life has dealt him.

The set, designed by Even Børsum, could be seen as representation of the emptiness of their lives which must be endured in the real world. A period sitting room has in its midst a bare-framed structure in the shape of a house; it is hollow, encompassing only the table, which in the absence of much food has little purpose and is used only for playing spiteful games of cards. The frame serves to represent an outside location, as do all the animals and birds that descend somewhat weirdly like a taxidermist’s s dream, filling the air with images of death.

Rather than evoking any sort of empathy, and certainly not sympathy, Dance of Death has more the feeling of a study in human nature, in which we are observers of the extraordinary behaviour of isolated humans.

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The Blurb

The National Theatre of Norway returns to The Coronet Theatre following their sold-out production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf with August Strindberg’s savagely comic Dance of Death.

On a remote island off the coast of Sweden, Alice and Edgar are locked in a furiously dysfunctional marriage. As they hurtle towards their 25th wedding anniversary, their brutal sparring is interrupted by the arrival of a newcomer, and their insular existence begins to spiral out of control.

Marit Moum Aune (The Lady From the Sea) directs acclaimed Norwegian actors Pia Tjelta, Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr in a fiery new version of Strindberg’s classic, which delves into the primitive instincts that lie beneath human behaviour.

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