The Dance of Death, Trafalgar Studio 2, London

I once saw a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which the audience perversely insisted on treating as a bourgeois comedy. At one point the blackmailer Krogstad turned stage front, shrugged and began playing as the villain he was expected to be. I think I saw Indira Varma experience a similar moment during the press performance of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, although on this occasion it was not the audience that made the running.

This three-handed 1900 portrait of a rancorous marriage is probably Strindberg’s bitterest play (if it is not, I do not want to see the alternative candidate). Edgar is a bull, bellowing and charging at his targets; Alice is a serpent, insinuating her way around others to create stratagems. As they prepare grimly to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, Alice’s cousin Kurt arrives on the military garrison island to be sucked into their vortex.

It is a clear antecedent of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, especially in Conor McPherson’s new version of the Strindberg, which is at times (and deliberately) too blunt to take seriously and so lets us off with laughs. As the two-hour playing time wears on, this tendency grows worse: when Daniel Lapaine’s Kurt, his eyes literally rolling, declares of Edgar “I . . . I . . . I want to kill him!”, Varma’s Alice gasps, “Yes!” as if in the throes of orgasm. Kevin R. McNally as Edgar roars, lies, winces in coronary agony and freezes in petit mal attacks: a committed and varied performance, but not one that would satisfy Strindberg’s own requirement for psychological realism of motive when he said, “We want to see the wires.”

Richard Kent has designed an impressively dilapidated cabin for the couple to inhabit, and Alex Baranowski’s sound design is so mournful that even the military band in the background sounds as if it is playing Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of The Titanic. But Titas Halder, directing in the Donmar’s Trafalgar season, is either unable or unwilling to make the play anywhere near as harrowing an experience as it ought to be. There’s misery here, certainly, but it’s so mannered that mirth is never far away.

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