The Dance of Death follows the story of unhappily married couple Edgar and Alice, married for twenty-five years and living in almost exile on a remote island. Colin Friels plays Edgar, the Captain, whose military career is derailed by his own short-sighted stubbornness – much to his wife Alice’s (Pamela Rabe) disgust. The couple live in almost complete isolation as they have been shunned by polite society, when Alice’s cousin Kurt arrives. Kurt (Toby Schmitz) has always had a warm relationship with Alice, but he is wary of her cantankerous and unpredictable husband.
Friels gives two conflicting performances: one as a bitter and twisted yet still amusing old gent and the other as a man possessed. This possession is not of the head-spinning, pea soup spewing variety, but of a man in such serious decline that his entire being shuts down. Kurt watches on in amazement as Alice nonchalantly explains her husband’s fugue-like states, then Edgar revives and continues on as if nothing happened. Even when Edgar has extreme delusional fits he seems in control, rarely leaving his imperious guard down.
Kurt on the other hand is positively manic as the couple (with their constant scheming) drive him demented. Toby Schmitz is a study in composure when the play begins, the toxic atmosphere of his cousin’s home leaves him in a fevered and fearful mess. Schmitz’s bewilderment is compelling, especially when he responds to Alice’s seductive ways.
At first glance it would seem that Pamela Rabe has squandered her innate talent in this role as her performance is on the whiffy side at times, then she removes her wig and another side emerges. Her performance veers on the grotesque, but Alice is a former actor, which explains the melodrama. Rabe buries herself in Alice (also burying herself) in the role of suffering wife with aplomb.
Set design, lighting and sound all unite to conjure a cinematographic quality that was enticing, particularly the first time the Captain freezes in action, when the walls of their home appear a dark red, a dramatic foreboding of the hell that their marriage has become. Sound design by Paul Charlier was evocative, when Alice plays her husband’s favourite song the music swells to a virtual symphony as Friels does what can only be described as a parody of a cossack dance to the audience’s delight.
Ultimately the dance of death, the dancing on graves that is mentioned several times throughout, is postponed and the couple end up precisely where they started out. They do not go as far as their American counterparts George and Martha, who wrote the book on marital discord. Edward Albee owed a huge debt to Strindberg, though, George and Martha could not have existed at all without the prototype couple Edgar and Alice. Director Judy Davis has all eyes glued to the stage with this inspired take on the Swedish master.
The Dance of Death is on until 23 Dec, for more information and tickets see: https://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-dance-of-death/#performance-cast
Director: Judy Davis
Featuring: Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz and Giorgia Avery.
above image by Lisa Tomasetti