07/06/2022

aAugust Strindberg’s 1900 drama of marital toil and torment either did not age well or this stage act did not reach the right note. Admittedly, it’s a play with many overtones – an absurd comedy mixed with a husband-wife battle, taking place on its 25th anniversary. They range from passive aggressive aggression to hate expressions and the threat of divorce to a third party who joins the fray and brings gothic vocals and swings in the direction of melodrama.

Alice (Lindsey Duncan), a former actress whose marriage ended her career, and Edgar (Hilton MacRae) an army captain who failed to climb the ranks, spend their bitter days on a remote island. But in Mehmet Ergen’s production, the duo don’t bring the unbridled comedic timing or the angry sharpness needed to bring this story to life. Instead, they make harsh tonal changes, one minute furious while George and Mildred eye everyone from the side, the next minute they unleash a barrage of death, hate, and bad fate.

Eternal torment… Hilton McCray and Emily Bruni (Catherine) in the Dance of Death. Photo: Alex Brenner

There is no tension between them and streaks of pain and disgust seem to be spoken of from a distance. Duncan plays Alice with unbridled irony but builds on superior plays. The moody Captain McCray is anything but terrifying. We never think they’re left in mutual agony, and feel shockingly lukewarm when he’s supposed to be restless.

The text, edited by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is partly edited — liberally sprinkled with F words and C words — yet the pair feel like they’re from another era. Alternate reality creeps into some scenes, but then the play reverts to an uncomfortable semi-comic setting. There is an interchange between the sexes – Alice’s cousin Kurt is now Catherine (Emily Bruni) – but without a tangible end. The short, vampire romance between Alice and Catherine is completely unconvincing here, and Catherine is a particularly woody character.

The play’s critique of laws on divorce and child custody is outdated, but the central vanity of two people bound together by mutual dependence and destruction is not. It stands in a long and rich dramatic tradition of marital encounters that later appeared in works from Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee to David Eldridge’s medium. It should have had more resonance in its references to the bubonic plague – the characters are predisposed to quarantine and this fits with contemporary accounts of the breakup of marriage during the Covid lockdown. So it’s a feat where everything has to go wrong, especially considering the talent in Lenkiewicz’s Academy Award-winning cast and author.

Happiness – a subject of discussion between Edgar and Alice – is known to “write in white,” but unfortunately it proves that misery can be boring. Alice says, “It’s a constant torment. Isn’t there an end?” We know what it means.