The Dance of Death at The Arcola is an ‘almost’ play. An interesting situation is interrogated: a high-status older married couple are on the brink of losing their power and possibly their lives. However, in this production there isn’t any real jeopardy conveyed, and when there should be, the characters don’t feel it themselves.
There is potential for an extremely turbulent and visceral depiction of a married relationship, but in truth this is a static piece. Theatre is entertainment, or at least it should be. This show simply lacks any semblance of drive. Although funny at times, there is minimal emotional need of each other from any of the characters. The Dance of Death has no action or event and there isn’t enough pressure conveyed by its characters to warrant that lacking.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s play is written without audience in mind. It is sharp at times but generally it is not affecting. The dialogue is a window into the usually unspoken thoughts of an older married couple and thus it is reasonably comedic. The characters are outrageous but hard to empathise with. This is probably due to their lack of redeeming qualities; I couldn’t find the light in the darkness of the world Alice (Lindsay Duncan) and Edgar (Hilton McRae) inhabit together, and Katrin (Emily Bruni) is a strangely unbelievable and jarring presence in that world.
Despite all, the acting is very accomplished. Duncan and McRae hold the space excellently, they’re committed and engaging. The banter between them is enjoyable and throughout the history of their relationship is clear. Saying this, the cast don’t maintain the emotional stakes between them necessary to instil drama.
Like The Chairs by Ionesco, this play is an absurdist look at a married couple living apart from reality. Unlike that play though, this production doesn’t feature a ‘game’ and we are left with a flat story that doesn’t shift tonally from the start. The crucial event is seemingly the dance Edgar does, and in terms of movement this is literally the only section that moves. A very typical, simplistic directorial mark is left in the production (by Mehmet Ergen), which is not exciting and it’s hard to say more than it is functional; actors sit or stand and deliver the lines – that’s pretty much it.
Grace Smart‘s design is precise: a mostly wooden and very realistic 19th/early 20th century style room makes up the set. It’s dotted with small details, items which create a thoughtful and comprehensive reality. David Howe’s lighting is the only thing in the production that has moments of suspense and dynamism and his choices help form some striking images.
There is a Covid angle in the narrative, with strong themes of isolation, mental and physical wellbeing within a world hit by disease. This danger looms occasionally, but the situation does not affect the characters who are resigned to a morbid outlook on life already. This idea fades and leaves the taste of a last-minute addition.
As the name suggests, death underpins the piece and unfortunately, the action that plays out is left just that – pretty much dead. This show is theatre in the most minimal sense: a story spoken by still characters in a single room. It’s not innovative or creative in anyway but it’s a well-acted classic play which has been partly modernized.
Written by: August Strindberg
Adapted by: Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by: Mehmet Ergen
Produced by: Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Oxford Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Dance of Death plays at Arcola Theatre until 23 July 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here