Dark and disturbing, yet equally laughable and touching is one dichotomous way of describing August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Irish born Conor McPherson adapts the play for Donmar’s Trafalgar Studios, leaving the malicious undertones while adding a more modernised trajectory of a broken down marriage. It’s feisty, it’s sharp – it’s a brilliant watch for a long, cold winter’s evening.
Set in a rickety house somewhere far-reaching on a remote island, we meet Alice, a beautiful forty-something who was once an alleged up-and-coming actress and her older husband whose ‘Captain’ status we learn is not much more than a frayed uniform and a daily news update received via an old telegraph. Their love/hate relationship is instantly made clear as they repeatedly hurl offences at each other – just another day they regret being married.
Alice and The Captain attempt to put on their best ‘happy couple’ smiles when their ‘dear old friend Kurt’ arrives, but things soon change when The Captain’s jealousy over Kurt’s success becomes insurmountable. Smiles turn to hisses, then screams as The Captain accuses Kurt of abandoning his children, Alice in return accuses The Captain of being a drunk and a poor provider and Kurt responds by accusing both of them of shamefully living their lives in contempt.
The match of insult-making delves into deeper waters when The Captain shows signs of ill health, and Alice and Kurt are left wondering what to do. Rather than your average call for help, the two begin plotting a life together, while the Captain concocts a future of his own. The race to the finish, so to speak, becomes a game of charades leaving the audience on the edge of their seats guessing what suckerpunch will come next.
For a script that was written in 1900 and a set design that crams the audience in, placing them just inches from the actors, it’s hard to believe the play is both so relevant and easy to watch. The dialogue is hard-hitting, even uncomfortable at times, but then nicely swings to softer tones of humour and heart. This tricky combination is pulled off thanks to exceptional performances from the three highly regarded actors: Indira Varma’s Alice is shockingly convincing as the manipulative, often seductive wife, Kevin R McNally’s Captain is perfect as the bitter old man who still possesses the ability to make Alice laugh and cry and Daniel LaPaine as the attractive, naïve and at times fumbling Kurt is hopelessly endearing.
This is one of those plays that stays with you long after you see it. It may not conjure up the best of memories, but it nonetheless keeps a lasting imprint on your heart and soul.
Dance of Death is at Trafalgar Studios through Saturday 5 January. Showtimes are weekdays 7.45pm and Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are £22.00 with group discounts available.