Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
November 14, 2018

Directed by Judy Davis and starring three of Australia’s finest stage actors, Belvoir’s last play of the season, Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, opened to much anticipation. Frustratingly, it struggled to find its feet on opening night, the production’s emphasis on self-conscious melodrama and schlocky horror infrequently amusing and ultimately unsatisfying.

Dance of Death reviewPamela Rabe and Colin Friels. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti 

Strindberg’s pitch-black comedy, performed here in a translation by May-Brit Akerholt, traces the unhappy union of Edgar (Colin Friels), the captain of an artillery battery, and Alice (Pamela Rabe), his actress wife of a tedious 25 years. Their disinterest in each other is palpable, both occupying their respective seats as if welded to them. You understand instinctively that not one of their jibes is fresh, all needling remarks having been traded across long evenings just like this one. However, the arrival of Alice’s cousin Kurt (Toby Schmitz) introduces an exciting element of unpredictability, his sedate, unsuspecting mien like catnip to the warring couple. Like hammy actors, they get off on the drama of their unhappy lives, relishing every instance to monologue at Kurt and draw him into their sticky web.

The action takes place on a black, reflective disc, surrounded by a moat of bloody water in which more and more domestic items are submerged. An alarming array of meat hooks serve as hat and coat stands, while the filthy walls remind us that the couple’s home used to serve as a former prison (what’s changed?). Designed by Brian Thomson, it’s appropriately horrible and of a piece with Strindberg’s more expressionistic impulses. So too is Paul Charlier’s tinny, foreboding music, as well as Matthew Scott’s atmospheric lighting. All do their job and do it well, but it’s a question of excess – nearly every element of Davis’ staging seems to be operating at the same high voltage, leaving little room for the more humane aspects of Strindberg’s play to emerge.

Dance of Death reviewToby Schmitz. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Certainly, the performances could have been reined in more. As mentioned, all three actors are some of the best we’ve got, but their interpretations never really gel and quickly descend into predictability. It’s true that Strindberg’s play becomes more and more expressionistic, but Davis leans too heavily into this, throwing off the finely calibrated balance the playwright strikes between subtly realised interiority and grander gestures of emotion.

No one would deny that Friels is natural casting as the captain, striding round the stage in spurs and sword like a little boy playing dress up. But his performance becomes one-note, Edgar’s crucial and brief moments of vulnerability lost in all the cocksure antics. Rabe’s portrayal is especially frustrating given her usual subtlety and Alice’s penchant for self-mythology is taken to a dull extreme. Still, you can’t help but admire Rabe’s gung-ho attitude, and her early exchanges with Friels are right on the money. Schmitz comes out of it looking best, successfully charting his character’s slow unravelling and earning unforced laughs as the straight man. They’re ably supported by Giorgia Avery’s outrageous maid Jenny.

Dance of Death reviewColin Friels, Pamela Rabe and Toby Schmitz. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti

If it’s not obvious, none of these performances are without merit, and there are tantalising glimpses of the show that could have been. Unfortunately, the principals seem ill at ease with the production’s histrionics, and that disconnect seriously impedes the power of Strindberg’s drama. There’s no reason why Davis shouldn’t play up its comic elements, but her insistence on the big effect comes at the expense of effective theatre.

Belvoir’s The Dance of Death is at the Upstairs Theatre until December 23