I go to the theatre a lot. I'd be a fool not to, as I live in London, which does have an awful lot of theatres putting on a huge variety of different productions. Generally I end up seeing things about a week before they close, so never write about them on this site, as the usefulness of reviewing a play that probably won't even exist by the time I post the review is going to be minimal. But now, having seen a play that's just opening rather than just closing, I find myself in the position of being able to tell you all about it... The Dance of Death is currently on at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue (one of the row of four or five theatres up at the Piccadilly Circus end). Written by intense Swedish playwright August Strindberg in 1900, this version is translated into English (very well) by Richard Greenberg, and stars Ian McKellan. (I'm assuming that the category I'm putting this in is for the correct Lyric theatre - the lack of any real information makes me wonder.) It's about an embittered husband and wife, Edgar and Alice. He's an ageing army captain and they live together in a tower on a Swedish island, an army base that Alice refers to as 'Little Hell'. They hate everyone else who lives on the island and they hate each other. They're bitter about their lack of status, their lack of money, their lack of affection for anyone. Edgar is unwell but won't admit it (and hates the local doctor too much to go to him for help). Then Alice's cousin Kurt arrives on the island. It was through Kurt's influence many years previously that Edgar and Alice got married in the first place, and both see the opportunity to use him as a weapon in their ongoing war with one another and with the world. Hostilities between the two characters escalate, and Kurt is forced to choose a side as Edgar's health worsens. So not a particularly happy little tale. It obviously influenced Edward Albee to write Who&
#39;s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but is rather darker than that play. It's not devoid of humour, there are some very funny moments, but the humour adds to the rather grim atmosphere of the play rather than acting as light relief. On the other hand the ending isn't nearly as devastating as the end of Virginia Woolf, so there you go. Swings and roundabouts. (It also reminded me of The Twits by Roald Dahl a bit, but without the worm-eating and shrinking.) McKellan, who previously played the part in New York, is incredible as Edgar. This is his first London stage role for four years. Since then he's become well-known as a result of X-Men and Lord of the Rings. This is very much the kind of performance that made him one of the most acclaimed stage actors of his generation. He builds a compelling and repulsive character with completely convincing mannerisms, switching between leering ogre and frightened old man in the blink of an eye. (Laurence Olivier played the part to typically enormous acclaim in the 60s. I can see why it appealed to him. Lots of shouting and a fair bit of jumping around combined with a kind of flawed nobility - very much an Olivier role. Maybe by playing this part McKellan's staking out his claim to be Olivier's true successor - he always seemed a more convincing candidate than Branagh, anyway.) Frances de la Tour as Alice is also very good. She's done a lot of acclaimed work on stage, none of which I've seen. I only know her as the object of Leonard Rossiter's unrequited lust in Rising Damp, and it's nice to know that there's more to her than 70s sitcoms. She doesn't reach the heights of absurd cruelty that McKellan does, which is a shame as it means that the audience has more sympathy for her than it should, but she's still on cracking form. The third character, Kurt, is played by Owen Teale. He had a successful run for the RSC about ten years ago playing some of Sh
akespeare's more notable hard men (Hotspur, Laertes, Edmund) but since then I don't think I've seen any evidence of him at all. He has quite a thankless role here, being effectively straight man to the other two, but he does it well, and gets a couple of good scenes towards the end. That's almost it for the cast. There's a serving girl and a sinister old woman who appear in one scene each, but their parts are so small that I completely forgot about them until they came on to take a bow at the end. The production is perfectly adequate. The circular set is good, and the lack of music builds up a nicely intense atmosphere in the second half. I had my doubts about it when I found out that the director was Sean Mathias (previously responsible for a dreadful Antony & Cleopatra at the National) but he does well here. (Maybe the fact that Antony & Cleo has about a million characters and Dance of Death has only three helped.) The lighting is extremely subdued, with candles being used extensively, which works very well, although it was so dark that I didn't realise that Owen Teale had a moustache until the lights came up for the curtain calls. There's an ill-advised brief appearance by a cat in the second half (only for a minute - McKellan picks it up and carries it offstage). This strikes me as dangerous - cats, to my mind, are contrary little bastards that tend do whatever they want - what happens if the thing decides to leap into the audience one night? It looked quite placid, so maybe it was doped. It was so dark on stage at this point that it's just possible that it was a hand puppet, like Emu, which McKellan animated by sticking his hand in it. I doubt it, though. Seat prices range from £12.50 to £37.50. I went for the cheap option (£15.00), and was sitting in the balcony, quite a way from the stage (probably why I couldn't tell if the cat was real or who had a moustache). The Lyric is kind of a generic West
End theatre: 19th century trappings with a big chandelier and a typical proscenium arch stage. There was a lack of leg room where I was sitting. We were lucky that there was no one sitting in front of us, allowing legs to be dangled and draped over the seats in front. And my legs are by no means long, so anyone who's very tall might want to think about splashing out for better seats where you would, I assume, have more space. (Not that my legs are all short and stumpy, I hasten to add; they're rather nicely proportioned to my body. Quite toned, too.) The play's about two and a half hours, including interval. The theatre was surprisingly empty (perhaps because it was a preview, and a matinee) so we didn't have to queue for drinks in the minuscule balcony bar. I've no idea how well the tickets are selling, but given that it marks the return of one of British theatre's megastars I'd expect them to go pretty fast. It runs until the end of May. If you like your drama well-acted, gloomy, intense and Scandinavian then this is probably the play for you.