Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death,” at the Shaw Festival, was written in 1900 but it is relevant today, especially in Conor McPherson’s modern adaptation. It is a complex play, well worth seeing. The title comes from the medieval image of the danse macabre, in which Death leads a whirling procession of humans to their end.
Masterfully directed by Martha Henry, the play depicts a verbal dance – or war of words between a couple on the brink of their 25th anniversary. It’s always good to see theatre in which Henry has a role. Photo courtesy of David Cooper
She lets the various dramatic elements – naturalism, expressionism, symbolism, dark comedy and sometimes despair – interweave without being tightly defined. Her direction features broad strokes of comedy and also more subtle suggestions of tenderness, irony, and even love.
Jim Mezon and Fiona Reid play the couple, Edgar and Alice. Jim is a military man and Alice a former actress. This, and the many references to “play” (piano, cards, etc.) make us wonder how much of the couple’s interaction is an elaborate form of theatre, or – in modern terms – psychodrama. They live in a drafty stone fortress, a former jail, on an island off the Swedish coast. William Schmuck’s set emphasizes the prison-like setting: large, grey stone blocks apparently on an angle, a huge wheel-like structure overhead, heavy furniture, bars on the windows. Schmuck also designed the realistic costumes. Through the windows and a half-open door, we glimpse a sentry patrolling at irregular intervals, played by Landon Doak with appropriate earnestness. Louise Guinand’s lighting design shows light entering the cell – in eerie, changing colours, and James Smith’s original music and sound heighten the atmosphere.
The couple act as if they are living out a life-sentence with each other and also in relation to the island’s military community, from whom they have isolated themselves. Even their children live away on the mainland. Alice and Edgar are experts at sparring: “Play what you like.” “You never like what I play,” is a mild exchange. Mezon plays Edgar with intense, bear-like physicality. He is angry, bombastic – but also ill, suffering, afraid of dying – or is he? Reid’s portrayal is more cerebral, with a quiet but distinct, cat-like physical presence – and Alice’s remarks are as deadly, if not more so, than Edgar’s.
Into this tense setting comes Kurt, Alice’s cousin – and one-time lover – played by Patrick Galligan. He introduced Alice and Edgar to each other, and we learn that he lost custody of his children after his divorce (There is an autobiographical element here: Strindberg lost custody of his children after each of his three marriages ended.) Kurt has returned from America to be the regiment’s “quarantine officer” – a telling metaphor. When he first enters, Galligan plays the well-dressed Kurt as if he is the epitome of reason, religion, and morality, a pawn caught in Alice and Edgar’s stormy drama. But he quickly becomes a third partner in the dance, adding an element of sexuality as the play draws to its striking conclusion.
Strindberg (1849-1912) was a novelist and painter as well as a playwright. He was influenced by mysticism, Freud; Darwin; and other ideas rampant at the time. His writing influenced later playwrights, including O’Neill, Beckett, Genet, and Sartre; Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ has definite echoes in this play,
Dance of Death is playing at the Studio Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until September 10th.