Review: The Dance of Death. Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Dance Of Death

Cambridge Arts Theatre

14th June 2022

Playing the Cambridge Arts Theatre’s stage this week is ‘The Dance Of Death’, a bleak and somewhat dreary drama based on Swedish author August Strindberg’s original 1900 play.  Adapted by playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, this new version attempts to revive Strindberg’s story of a crumbling marriage for today’s audiences, delivered by real-life husband and wife Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae.

Alice and Edgar are on the precipice of “celebrating” their 30th wedding anniversary, but in actuality can barely stand each other.  The couple constantly taunt and snipe bitterly at each other, and harbour long-seeded resentments, seemingly only remaining in the marriage to torment the other.  Their damp, dismal home is as lifeless as their relationship, never visited by either friends or family, and both are counting down the days until death comes, be it their spouse’s or their own.  Alice’s cousin Katrin arrives out of the blue (Peep Show’s Emili Bruni), opening old wounds and revealing more glimpses into the couple’s bitter history. 

Perhaps Strindberg’s source material hasn’t aged well, but unfortunately there is little here to recommend.  Director Mehmet Ergan keeps the pace slow, bordering on lethargic, and also strikes an uneven tone throughout.  There are moments of farce, melodrama, gothic romance….the piece feels unsure of what it’s trying to be, or say, and the break-neck changes in tone make it feel very scattered, as if the audience is “channel-hopping” and catching numerous brief glimpses of very different dramas.  There are moments of sharp wit and humour, and some clever lines which are well-delivered, but these are lost in a sea of monotony and depression.  The set (designed by Grace Smart) and lighting (David Howe) are effective in bringing the lifelessness of the couple’s marriage to life, and do create the eerie atmosphere of something slowly decaying.  Edgar and Alice’s relationship is clearly one of misery, but unfortunately this translates to the audience, and makes ‘The Dance Of Death’ a struggle to sit through.

Duncan and McRae obviously have their own natural chemistry which does come through on stage, and both are fine actors, but have little to do other than take verbal swipes at each other which does start to feel tedious.  Perhaps it is played a little too cool, and needs more of an acerbic sharp tone to really drive the conflict.  The play doesn’t fully explain why this couple have remained together in the face of such mutual loathing and detestation, or properly explain the various dark secrets from the past, which all leads to a confused and unsatisfying muddle.

Played without an interval, ‘The Dance Of Death’ is thankfully a relatively short look into what makes a marriage and asks some good questions about death and mortality, but overall is a sadly dull production.  Solid performances from Duncan and McRae aren’t enough to make this something you really want to ‘Dance’ to, and it may be better to sit this one out.

‘The Dance Of Death’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 18th June 2022 before moving to Northampton’s Royal & Derngate next week, and ending with a three-week run at London’s Arcola Theatre until 23rd July 2022.
Performance run time 1 hour 20 minutes with no interval

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