Strindberg’s The Dance of Death (1900) is a play in two parts. Although Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan played the full saga at the National Theatre in 1966, you only usually see Part One.
Howard Brenton, using a literal translation by Agnes Broome, has provided a sleek new version of both parts in which Michael Pennington as the appalling army captain, Edgar, and Linda Marlowe as his defiantly critical former actress wife, Alice, play out their misery in the course of what now seem like two meaty one-act plays.
Brenton picks over the bones of each part faithfully, and particularly brings out the triangular nature of the tragedy in the figure of Edgar’s old friend, Kurt – here played with quivering sensitivity by Christopher Ravenscroft – who has arrived on the island as a quarantine officer only to be terrifyingly destroyed by Edgar as well.
The first part shows Alice and Edgar moving to another plateau of disagreement in the tower but admitting that they might as well stick it out to the silver jubilee. In the second part, they have moved down to ground level in Kurt’s oval drawing-room by the sea.
There, Judith, their daughter, is flirting with Kurt’s son, Allan, who has arrived on the island to join Edgar’s battery. These youngsters, well played by Eleanor Wyld and Edward Franklin, show a new possibility for their generation, even though Edgar looks set to scupper that, too, by posting Allan to Lapland.
Michael Pennington provides a monstrous portrait of smiling, vengeful malignity, executing that famous dance with all the panache of Olivier and the heel-clicking decisiveness of Ian McKellen in the role ten years ago. But he adds something more, a sort of gloating, vulpine glee in the havoc he wreaks, and you only really get that by having Part Two.
How the couple have survived this long without killing each other is a mystery, and there’s a Gothic horror element in Marlowe’s cradling of Edgar’s head as he suffers his second major stroke, invoking the legend of Judith and Holofernes; you feel all her preening and posing for several decades is released in a cathartic shout of triumph.
Strindberg’s play was devised for his Intimate Theatre, so the seventy-odd customers at the Gate are suitably up close and personal to these fraught emotional shenanigans, which are notably well directed by Tom Littler in an outstanding design by James Perkins.
To 6 July (020 7229 0706)