THE DANCE OF DEATH
THE DANCE OF DEATH, Upstairs Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre, 15 November-23 December 2018. Photography by Lisa Tomasetti: above - Toby Schmitz, Colin Friels and Pamela Rabe; below - Pamela Rabe and Colin Friels
The set design for The Dance of Death, Belvoir’s final show of the year, is a Brian Thomson flight of dark fancy. There’s a slightly raised stage area surrounded by still, reflective water representing the small island off the coast of Sweden where the protagonists live – on another islet of domestic misery. It’s engaging to look at, washed in Matthew Scott’s variously atmospheric lighting states as, over time, diverse bits of unlikely detritus are revealed in the water – a portable typewriter, a chandelier – evidence of fights past and hope discarded. And the discordant vision is further enhanced by Paul Charlier’s composition for out-of-tune piano, unharmonious orchestra and thunder effects.
The play opens with Alice (Pamela Rabe) staring into space from a chaise longue as her husband Edgar (Colin Friels) plinks on an upright piano. Elsewhere in this parlous parlour is a credenza topped with clutter, an up-ended tubular metal table and a couple of similar chairs. Hanging from hooks at the edge of the island-room is a military uniform, including coal scuttle-style helmet. Beyond and around the edges the walls are slashed and splashed with ill-applied blood-red paint. So far, so good.
August Strindberg wrote The Dance of Death in 1900, by which time it’s pretty clear his view of family life was bleak. His mother had died when he was 13 and his father remarried their housekeeper within a year. Strindberg himself had already married and divorced twice and as a result was forcibly estranged from his children and his finances were precarious. All of this is dissected in desolate detail in The Dance of Death.
Alice and Edgar have been married almost 25 years, during which time their constant bickering and growing dislike of each other have coalesced into a toxic mix that saturates them and their surrounds. Edgar can’t wait to escape into death and Alice is frantic to assist him on his way. Their mutual loathing is tangible yet made almost palatable by flashes of caustic humour.
Director Judy Davis launches into this melange of wretchedness with an eye and ear for the humour but, from the opening minutes when a starstruck audience is aflutter with nervous titters, it quickly goes awry. The play’s corrosive bite is dissipated by self-consciously awkward playing of the humour by two actors whose characteristic comedic accomplishment is missing in action.
As the misanthropic old git Edgar, Friels is almost cutely boyish and weirdly (misguidedly) likeable, while Rabe capers and poses coquettishly to a point where it’s painful to watch. When an actor reaches frantically for the shiny baubles in their bag of tricks to distract from the yawning chasm opening up in front of us it’s an excruciating sight. These are comic grotesques rather than flesh and blood humans and they are where credibility and meaning ought to be.
Toby Schmitz, as Alice’s cousin Kurt, has no better luck when he arrives to take up a position in charge of a new quarantine station. He is stuck with many of the worst lines, including repeated references to Alice being “evil”. His discomfort has to be because Kurt would rather be anywhere than in his relatives’ company. In place of any depth of humanity, Alice is querulous and Edgar is snippy, while Kurt mostly gapes in (understandable) disbelief.
There is virtually nothing to like about this production, including a hideous treatment of Alice that has her strip off in a humiliating fashion that adds nothing to our understanding of her as a sad and frustrated woman. Yet it says a lot about the current rebellion against blokey behaviour towards women.
All in all, the tragedy and comedy have been lost to superficiality and what remains is two hours of wasted talent and opportunity. It’s exhausting and bitterly disappointing. Two stars for the creative team.