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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Dance of Death
Trafalgar Studios  Winter 2012-2013

As the first half of The Dance of Death draws to a close, Kurt stands in his cousin Alice's front room and surveys what remains of her marriage: 'It's all so awful,' he cries.

With shades of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Edward Albee's play clearly owes much to this 1900 classic by August Strindberg), we are allied with Kurt as guests in this couple's home, watching the war that their marriage has become. Each scene is a battle - or worse, a bout in a boxing match, a game of fencing, played not for grand moral reasons but simply for points.

Trapped together in their oppressive home, an ageing soldier (Kevin R McNally) and his ex-actress wife (Indira Varma, sparkling with dangerous malice) tear chuncks out of each other for entertainment. There is little else to do: stuck on this island, where the Captain has been posted by the army, Edgar and Alice's failing marriage has poisoned everything in their lives. Into this melting pot of despair comes Kurt, who spends the rest of the play tossed between the two of them like a rag doll.

The three-strong cast are unanimously superb: McNally brings a great deal of humour to Edgar without robbing him of any of his sting, Daniel Lapaine is by turns heroic and pathetic as Kurt, and Varma moves seamlessly between Alice's moments of hideous, calculating cruelty and genuinely tragic despair, so that she has changed the one for the other before the audience even knows it. 

Titas Halder's direction is neat and unfussy, and he manages to bring out all the ambiguities of a failing marriage, in which each person is equally villain and victim, without robbing any character of their humanity.

Richard Kent's excellently dank set design not only conveys the play's claustrophobic quality, but supports in the single room's faded grandeur husband and wife's obsessive memories of a happier past.

The play is the second in a series of three Donmar Warehouse productions taking place in the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios spaces. The collaboration proved fruitful with The Promise, which had much to recommend it in spite of its flaws, and The Dance of Death is stronger still. 

In this new translation of the play by Connor MacPherson, the sense of humour is as dark as night and very cruel. Much like the characters, the audience does not always seem sure whether to laugh or cry, and at times the sheer mean-spiritedness of it can seem so relentless, so bleak, that just before Christmas it is almost too much. If you’re looking for an antidote to all the Scrooge-like tales of festive redemption, this may well be it.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Dance of Death - Trafalgar Studios 2012 
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