DANCE OF DEATH at The Coronet Theatre
“Watching this Dance is to appreciate why actors should not tackle Strindberg unless they are at the very top of their game”
Watching a play about three people trapped in a dysfunctional marriage may not be everyone’s choice for a night at the theatre. But this production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Dance of Death by the National Theatre of Norway should not be missed. Directed by Marit Moum Aune, the production currently visiting the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, is also performed in Norwegian with English subtitles on stage. The best way to experience this production, then, would be to read the play beforehand. That way you can settle back in your seat and get immersed in the stellar performances of Pia Tjelta, Jon Øigarden and Thorbjørn Harr without the distracting subtitles. Because make no mistake, you won’t want to miss a moment of these actors’ intense portraits of people intent on driving each other to madness and worse.
Dance of Death occupies a transitional space in Strindberg’s plays. It’s midway between intensely naturalistic dramas like Miss Julie and The Father, moving inexorably in the direction of the symbolist Ghost Sonata and A Dream Play. But the symbolist features of the latter plays are present in the earlier plays, if you know where to look. Dance of Death is no exception. Even in the naturalistic setting of a fortress prison where Edgar and Alice have endured twenty five years of a tortuous marriage, we see that the space itself is one of the characters driving this broken pair to ever more savage acts. When Alice’s cousin Edgar arrives, the space takes hold of him in much the same way. Strindberg has set up a glorious plot. Trapped on an island, isolated from the rest of the world, will anyone survive? And did I mention that Dance of Death is also funny? Strindberg’s wit shines through in this production, even in Norwegian.
Every part of the National Theatre of Norway’s production does justice to Dance of Death. The set (Even Børsum) presents a domestic setting that gives the actors space to show their distance from each other, as well as spaces where they physically grapple for domination and control. Connections with the outside world, such as the telegraph, are suspended above the stage, showing another kind of distance. The sound (designed by Bendik Toming) and lighting (Agnethe Tellefsen) echo the sounds of other lives, outside this prison, outside this play. These also intensify the sense of isolation that is driving Alice, Edgar and Kurt to madness.
As you might expect, it is the actors who deserve the most credit in Dance of Death. From the start, where Pia Tjelta’s Alice faces off against Jon Øigarden’s Edgar on opposite sides of the stage, you won’t be able to look away. Øigarden’s performance in particular is a masterpiece of control. Switching between bouts of sickness where he literally collapses prone, to physical grappling with Alice and Thorbjørn Harr’s Kurt, the audience never knows what he will do next. He is the puppetmaster, who knows how to disguise himself as a victim. Alice and Kurt have no choice but to dance to his tunes. Pia Tjelta has the difficult role of playing both betrayed wife and vengeful vampire. But her Alice (a former actress) knows how to move effortlessly between cold indifference and seductive charm. And like a vampire, she can never be quite killed off, despite the attempts of both men to do so. Thorbjørn Harr’s Kurt is a portrait of a man seemingly in control of his life, despite its sorrows. Harr’s physical transformation into a pallid drunkard by the end, sucked dry of life by this predatory pair, is impressive. Watching this Dance is to appreciate why actors should not tackle Strindberg unless they are at the very top of their game. And they will still need a good director to guide them through the traps the playwright places along the way. Fortunately for Harr, Øigarden and Tjelta, Marit Moum Aune is up to the task. Aune has created a Dance of Death that manages to avoid the seemingly unrelenting gloom. Her direction shows us a ruthless world, it is true, but one shot through with humour, and hints of how to escape.
Dance of Death is revived often on British stages. Often with mixed success. And that’s another compelling reason to catch this production. Scandinavians know this material intimately. They are raised on it. Hence the go for broke, no holds barred approach from the National Theatre of Norway. It’s an instructive experience.
Reviewed on 17th March 2023
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Tristram Kenton
Previously reviewed at this venue: