foist an Irish Strindberg on a paying audience needs a pretty good excuse by now.
Carlo Gebler, whose version of The Dance of Death opens at the Tricycle Theatre next week, knows this perfectly well - when talk turns to the sheer volume of "Hibernicised" classics he mutters "Disgusting, isn't it?", and he seems to mean it. Although, he says he admires Frank McGuinness's version of Three Sisters, for example, he is as unimpressed by Irishness as only an Irishman can be, blaming the glut of Irish plays and adaptations we have seen in recent years on "the English lashing themselves for the empire: 'Now we're taking our punishment and we'll do Chekhov in Mayo, we'll show that we're really sorry and we'll have all this Irish stuff all over our theatre.'"
But when Nicholas Kent, the Tricycle's artistic director and director of this production, asked Gebler to consider shifting The Dance of Death, he didn't hesitate. For one thing, he is, he says, a great lover of Strindberg, having been attracted as a teenager to the sheer raging insanity of his autobiographical Inferno - a record of alchemical experiments and a kind of mystical paranoia written during the 1890s, just a few years before The Dance of Death. On top of that, Ireland is the only place he knows - setting the play there immediately gave him a "voice", a vernacular he could work in. But finally, Gebler simply felt intuitively that the play would be at home in an Irish setting.
Certainly, some aspects translate very naturally: where Strindberg placed the action on a garrison island off the Swedish coast, Gebler places it in a Martello tower, one of many built around the Irish coast in expectation of Napoleonic invasion; and there is an extravagance in the vicious, often hilariously black rhetoric that Strindberg's central characters, a superannuated captain and his wife, hurl at each other which suits Irish idioms better than it might suit a more restrained English version.
Gebler's version seems like a close reading of Strindberg, until you compare it with a more literal translation. His working practice was to read a couple of pages of the play in every translation he could get, then write down from memory what he thought happened. When he had been through the entire play like this, he compared his version with the Swedish original and found it was 4,000 to 5,000 words longer. So, he set about slashing every one of his sentences to the length of Strindberg's original ones, chucking out fidelity and occasionally comprehensibility in favour of pace.
On the page, the result works fine, at least in Part 1 (The Dance of Death is two plays, both of which are to be performed at the Tricycle - take a cushion). But you know what they say, "Traditore, traduttore": to translate is to betray. The problem
facing the adaptor who takes a classic to Ireland is not simply what he loses, but what he might gain.
In the case of The Dance of Death, Gebler gains a whole new subtext about sectarian and national conflict. The Captain and his wife, Edgar and Alice, here become a mixed marriage - he is an impoverished Protestant, she is from a rather grander Catholic family; his quarrel with her cousin (Kurt in the original, here renamed Conor) takes on explicitly religious overtones. Gebler takes this theme even further by setting Part 1 in the summer of 1913, so that Part 2, which takes up the story two-and-a-half years later, coincides with the Easter Rising of 1916. Given the play's deeply personal nature - Strindberg based it, rather too obviously for comfort, on his sister and her husband - this political dimension may offend Strindberg purists. They may also be worried about the way Gebler plays up aspects of the story - notably a sub-plot about some shares.
Gebler himself has no doubt that he is serving the play: "I wanted to make the intrinsic qualities even stronger - I wanted to make it seem more what it was than it was at the moment, if that makes sense." In his view, making the marriage a mixed one and making Kurt/Conor, a character Strindberg apparently identified with, a Catholic accentuates Strindberg's sense of being an outsider. Adding the Easter Rising emphasises the theme of betrayal which runs through the two plays - as in his novel The Cure, Gebler is intrigued by the point of view of the Irish-born servants of English rule: in this case, the attitude towards the Rising of the soldier whose comrades are dying like flies in Flanders.
As for the plot elements he plays up, he says this is done to make sense of a play which at times strays very far away from being sensible. He attributes the incoherencies to the way Strindberg wrote the play: after finishing Part 1, he sent it to his German translator and friend, Emil Schering, who wrote back that no theatre would ever put it on because, in Gebler's phrase: "They would be slitting their wrists in the intermission." (Coincidentally, this is the phrase Nicholas Kent used when rejecting a previous play of Gebler's - he clearly inherits his sunny temperament from his mother, novelist Edna O'Brien, who has never been famous for her optimistic world-view.) He then wrote the marginally more cheerful Part 2 without re-reading
what he had already done, adding some discrepancies (such as the Captain's sudden apparent affluence) which Gebler felt needed sorting out.
Has taking Strindberg to Ireland been worth the trip? Audiences can decide next Tuesday; Gebler himself has no doubt that his changes help to keep the action moving smoothly. Strindberg himself would have approved: "The thing to remember about Strindberg," according to Gebler, "is that, although a nutter, he was very, very practical. His idea, and I share his sentiments, is: they're going to come in, they're going to pay money, they're going to sit for a couple of hours, they could be doing something much, much better - give them a damn good time."
The Dance of Death, Parts 1 and 2, opens on Tuesday 31 March at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (0171 328 1000). Carlo Gebler's novel 'How to Murder a Man' is published next week by Little, Brown.Reuse content