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Play Strindberg (Ustinov Studio)

The acting batters and blodies you in this superb production of Play Strindberg at the Ustinov Studio.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Sally Dexter (Alice) and Greg Hicks (Edgar) in Playing Strindberg.
© Simon Annand

Friedrich Durrenmatt's Play Strindberg takes that writers Dance of Death and turns it into a boxing metaphor set over 12 bruising comic rounds as a couple play out a death throes of a relationship. In the Ustinov's blazing 95 minute production it's the three performances that keep you down for the ten count. The Ustinov's intimate surroundings allows for the audience to be up close to high definition performances and has already seen one of the performances of the year by Tanya Moodie in Intimate Apparel. That performance is joined by three terrific performances here led first and foremost by Greg Hicks as the monstrous Edgar.

Domineering and leering, scary and pathetic, Hicks has an ability to seem both stately and everyman, often flitting between both in the same sentence. You feel as though he is close to the idea Durrenmatt actor, a grotesque who juggles the serious and the comic with aplomb. His frenzied dance is a chillingly maniacal but highly comic clog dance, Olivier's legendary turn when he tackled Edgar in Strindberg's original could hardly have been more memorable. It a magnificent, brave performance by one of the stage's finest actors and to witness it in close up high definition is a joy.

Sally Dexter as Alice and Richard Clothier as Kurt match Hicks beat by beat, like distance runners who are pushed to new heights by a world class star. Dexter is piercingly droll, her high cheekboned beauty perfect for the withering stares she reserves for her husband. She is an ideal adversary, each catty aside, the deathly put downs leaving them equal on points. When she sits down at the piano and sings it's a reminder not only of her musical theatre pedigree but also of the charm Alice possesses that so captivates the men.

Greg Hicks (Edgar) in Playing Strindberg.
© Simon Annand

Clothier is a smooth, gentlemanly presence that turns chilling as he becomes a third pawn in the war. It's to the productions credit that as he leaves at the end of the evening there is no clear sense of winners and losers, all have returned to their corner bloodied but not quite defeated. It plays out in Nancy Meckler's stunning production in a circular pit blackened out around the edges; a gladiatorial arena or Dante's pit of hell, in Max Jones and Ruth Hall's symbolic design.

Alistair Beaton has translated Durrenmatt without taking liberties, the updates taking it slightly away from the sixties, a telegragh machine to a telex without taking it fully into modern times. The language is deliciously short and brutal, the humour as dark as that in Albee's play which it shares many similarities; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And just like in that play, there is just a glimmer of hope at the end for the marriage (or is it just a final revenge?)

It confirms after Intimate Apparel and Bad Jews that the Ustinov-under Laurence Boswell's inspired directorship is in a golden period. Play Strindberg may be its crown jewel!

Play Strindberg plays at the Ustinov until the 11th October.