Frances Poet’s punchy adaptation of part I of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death finds a married couple, Alice (Lucianne McEvoy) and Edgar (Tam Dean Burn), on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, adrift on a lonesome raft far from civilisation. Trapped in this claustrophobic isolation, the two engage in a ferocious physical and psychological battle until the unexpected arrival of a well-meaning cousin (Andy Clark) suggests an end to their war of attrition.
Poet’s cracklingly intelligent script makes clear the ‘dance of death’ is both a passionate tango and a violent, bare-knuckle fist fight. Alice and Edgar trade well-aimed verbal blows to floor each other with minimal effort. The couple’s suffocating symbiosis seeps into their every word, every line pickled in meaning, and Candice Edmunds’ balletic, energetic direction emphasises this, having Edger and Alice circle each other like opposing magnets, alternately feeding and repelling each other. They are each others’ whole world.
The lean script finds reflection in the Graham McLaren’s set, an isolated raft adrift in the sea of the Citz’ Circle Studio, while Luke Sutherland’s soundtrack sweeps around it like the tide, hinting at the distance of both civilisation and potential happiness. Sleek and unimposing, the minimalism of this design leaves ample space for two utterly ferocious central performances.
Burn makes a bellowing giant of Edgar, his psychological and physical hugeness seeming forcibly confined by the Circle Studio rafters. A charismatic behemoth gone to seed, his hubris has turned comedic in his isolation. But McEvoy’s Alice is more than a match for him— a circling wolf to Burns’ bullying bear. Her steel-cut sarcasms and gleeful manipulations of her husband are monstrous but achingly humane. Together, the pair burn like the binary star.
Poet’s decision to compress the play’s action to one night is mostly a good one, increasing both the tale’s sense of urgency and tragedy. For Edgar and Alice, their relationship is a relentlessly circular narrative. It can be shaken by momentary changes but in the end—in the morning, as they wait for more meat to feed on—it is a need too immense to be overcome.
A downside of this eighty-minute running time is that the increasingly spiteful gestures of the couple ratchet too quickly towards the absurd, leaving little room for darker moments to take hold. And we need those moments to make sense of their predicament. Is the kind of relationship Alice and Edgar have something that is still relatable in the 21st century, when divorce laws and women’s rights no longer carry the taboo they did in Strindberg’s 1890s? Viewed from this side of the millennium, Edgar and Alice seem grotesque exceptions instead of exaggerated examples of the everyday, the result being Poet’s adaptation is less resonant than it could be.
Nevertheless, Dance of Death is a ferocious late addition to the Citz’ programme, and a stunning platform to witness both Burn and McEvoy on blazing form.
Dance of Death is on until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.