Review: The Dance of Death, Belvoir

Playing at Belvoir, this new production of Strindberg’s 1900 classic play, is an increasingly macabre waltz steeped in the chant and repetitions of sacrificial slaughter.
Review: The Dance of Death, Belvoir

Pamela Rabe and Colin Friels in The Dance of Death by August Strindberg at Belvoir. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

It’s the dead key that signifies the darkness to come. On the audio track a tinny piano jauntily echoes to open The Dance of Death.  The musical hall air brings the suspended animation characters to life. They have been frozen in their misery since the audience entered and they will rouse and tear at each other as the final treble note of the gloomy on-stage piano clunks.  Playing at Belvoir, this new production of Strindberg’s 1900 classic play, is an increasingly macabre waltz steeped in the chant and repetitions of sacrificial slaughter.

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Alice and her Captain husband have been 25 years married and there is silver in the glint of a sabre swinging in and out of light when they are first roused. Despite their chosen isolation in hatred of others, they poke and jab at each other with a terrible shorthand where arguments of long acquaintance reverberate. It’s all terribly familiar to these two until Alice’s cousin Kurt disturbs the rhythm of their hatred.

Directed by Judy Davis, with a literal translation from May-Brit Akerholt, this production is enthralling, nuanced and finely detailed. 'Five' becomes a weapon and the carousel of encircling argument speeds up towards the end of the piece in a vicious visual metaphor. Paced to allow the humour to be enjoyed early on, there is one breathtakingly still moment toward the beginning when nasty surfaces and it cuts the cheek of our previous laughter. Yet, still, the laughs come often, out loud, and the physical comedy is skilfully placed and very funny alongside the pathos and drama.

Pamela Rabe and Colin Friels in The Dance of Death by August Strindberg at Belvoir. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

The Dance of Death is driven by three thrilling performances. With his dress spurs and sway back stance and arrogant crotch display when sitting, Colin Friels’ Captain Edgar restlessly combines swagger with insouciant bonhomie and his unselfconscious physicality brings the character brilliantly alive. His is a big physical presence matched superbly by Pamela Rabe as Alice.

The bad actress is never far from the surface in Rabe’s creation and there’s drag and ghoul in the theatrical Victoriana of the overblown. There’s a coil inside her that explodes up or at objects and Rabe’s command of the comedy is misshapen oppression wryly expressed. Though perhaps somewhat younger than the text suggests, Toby Schmitz is extremely good early on as his button down evening dress separates him from them. Initially upright yet caring, as Kurt unravels, Schmitz brings out the naiveté and history with an increasing abandonment of morality.

The music score of this production is marvellous, dark and tinked with the clang of chains and the obscurity of bass. The ghost piano is as conflicted as Edgar’s fear of death and the carnival discordance after interval introduces us to the grotesques that will arch the stage of Act 2. It’s a Grand Guignol stage here. The slaughter house set bristles with hellish overtones in pure contrast with the accessible moderness of the translation. They are literally on an island and the water moat bloodies them all in its toxic reflection.

Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe and Toby Schmitz in The Dance of Death by August Strindberg at Belvoir. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

Reflections conjured in light that can be beautiful when an audience has had their fill of the red which flows around events.  Shadows are used especially well, with the loom and travel of the portcullis part of a mise en scène which provides context and emotional carry.  The costuming is deceptively simple inside the character expression and is summed up in the interrogation of meaning that puts Alice in servant Jenny’s apron.

The Dance of Death is a masterwork. Unmissable, majestic theatre-making that rhythmically sways before an audience with the threat and hook of a voyeur’s view inside a plunking, dead, catastrophic marital carcass.

5 stars ★★★★★

The Dance of Death by August Strindberg
Cast:  Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz, Giorgia Avery
Director: Judy Davis
Literal translation: May-Brit Akerholt
Set Designer: Brian Thomson
Lighting Designer: Matthew Scott
Choreographer: Thomas Egan
Fight Coordinator: Nigel Poulton
Composer & Sound Designer: Paul Charlier

14-23 November 2018
Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills

Judith Greenaway

Thursday 15 November, 2018

About the author

Judith grew up as a theatre brat with parents who were jobbing actors and singers. She has now retired from a lifetime of teaching and theatre work with companies small and large and spends evenings exploring the wealth of indie and professional theatre available in Sydney.