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Dances of Death

Howard Brenton's new Strindbergian adaptation premieres at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Michael Pennington in Dances of Death
© Catherine Ashmore
Over a century old, but still a blistering account of a mildewed marriage, Strindberg's play is given the savage light comedy treatment by Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe in a jagged new version by Howard Brenton.

The new title conveys the plurality of the dance moves executed by Marlowe as Alice, a former actress whose competence on the stage is a bitter bone of contention; and the famous frantic interlude of break-out exasperation by Pennington as the nasty old army captain, Edgar.

Brenton, using a literal translation by Agnes Broome, has compressed both parts of The Dance of Death (1900) - not often done together - into two hour-long acts, so that we see the antipathies played out in another generation, between Alice and Edgar's daughter, Judith (Eleanor Wyld), and her second cousin Allan (Edward Franklin).

Allan is the son of the unhappy couple's best friend, Kurt, who introduced them to each other and whose wife, we learn in a sudden shaft of acrid revelation, was seduced by Edgar when he went along to console her after she left Kurt and took custody of their children.

Kurt is easily the most attractive character on the stage in Tom Littler's well marshalled production, and he's beautifully played by Christopher Ravenscroft as someone for whom no more news is ever going to be good.

In the second play, even his house is commandeered by Edgar, along with his financial security and political ambitions. And Edgar attempts to ruin his son, too, by consigning Allan, who has joined his battery, to distant Lapland; where Judith will swim after him, if need be.

Kurt has arrived on the remote island as a quarantine officer while Alice and Edgar play out their 30-year-old cat fight. Marlowe, inured against feeling, it seems, and flaunting a cigarette holder as though devoted to striking poses of emotional dismissal, goads Pennington into some superbly towering rages.

From that height he delivers one of his most sustained and powerful performances, subsiding into strokes in each half with a shuddering intensity and laying about him with a sabre when Kurt and Alice get too cosy; their relationship is another savage twist in a saga that is obviously rooted in the dismal, inbred atmosphere of the place.

That place is a circular tower in the first half and an airy conservatory with views of the broiling sea and scudding clouds in the second, a transformation brilliantly suggested by designer James Perkins.

The show plays out as a series of snapshot scenes, punctuated with howling winds and symphonic music, this technical side of things unusually well realised in the sound of George Dennis, the lighting of William Reynolds, and the frieze-like movement of Quinny Sacks.