Dances of Death is bizarre watching. It’s a compelling portrayal of two disastrous lives and the diabolic effects of them on others. It’s a how not to live your life. It’s morbid and desperate throughout, yet still somehow manages to hold onto a shred of humour: dark comedy at its darkest.
The Captain and Alice live on an isolated island where they’ve befriended no-one and don’t much care to. The play opens to find them both in a stupor of boredom, frustration and the drawn-out effects of a relationship gone sour. They find no comfort in their child Judith, their money and certainly not in each other, but bicker and vex and entertain themselves instead by seeing who can aggravate the other most. Then in comes Kurt, a cousin of Alice’s who the couple desperately latch on to and convince to stay for supper, and the rest of the play is a minefield of aggression, selfishness and family traumas.
Written in 1900 by August Strindberg, and adapted in this new version by Howard Brenton (writer of, amongst others, #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei and the 2011 Whatsonstage Best New Play winner Anne Boleyn), Dances of Death is a curious play. It’s strangely unsettling to watch, in that you don’t quite know what you’ve seen or where it’s going, where there’s a lot of talk and no progress, where everything’s up in the air and the resolution leaves you feeling entirely unresolved. Death plays a constant part with both the Captain and Alice taunting each other with it (a classic moment being where the Captain takes a fall and Alice asks "is he dead?"), and where the minor characters are truly inferior to the couple’s demonic expertise in hell-raising. Compellingly portrayed by theatre veterans Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe, the 'funny' side is never forsaken and the lighter moments of their marital conniving brilliantly realised.
It's an interesting one, this play. Go and see it if only for the second act which is now rarely staged; it's gothic and horrible and still somehow life-affirming.
Dances of Death is running now until 6th July at Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. Tickets are £20, £15 concession. For more information visit the Gate Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary press ticket.