Strindberg’s celebrated portrait of marital rancor is wearing a bit thin, at least if Swedish director Peter Stormare’s Almeida Theater revival is any gauge. Although cast with two fine actors, John Neville and Gemma Jones, as the couple whose silver wedding anniversary turns into a wake, the central performances — like the play itself — early on lose any sense of surprise. Kick-starting an unofficial London Strindberg season that continues this month with a new Royal Shakespeare Company staging of “Easter,” this “Dance of Death” announces a hellish union without making an audience feel it; Stormare, himself an actor (he was Ingmar Bergman’s stage Hamlet), needs to tighten the noose if we are ever to be caught in its grip.
The play, written in 1900, itself may be partly at fault, since Strindberg struggles to wring fresh variations on his theme. In Michael Meyer’s translation , the script amounts to a ceaseless reiteration of misery — from “all life is gruesome” early on to “perhaps when death comes, life begins” near the finish. While the first 45 minutes or so have a mordant fascination, long stretches thereafter merely rephrase what we already know. The play needs the layered ironies of an Ibsen or Albee; it’s a seminal text oddly lacking in subtext.
Neville and Jones work like the devil to bring this demonic pairing to life. Living on an island off the Swedish coast, their characters pass the time in a shared gavotte of cruelty and abasement, flecked with Beckettian acknowledgments of the “nothing” to follow once “the liberator” that is death arrives.
While Jones’ Alice smilingly anticipates her husband’s demise, doing a Salome-like dance of victory over his head at one point, Neville’s captain Edgar petitions for divorce only to confront anew the mutual torment that is their destiny. The emergence after 15 years of Alice’s cousin and former lover, Kurt (Anthony O’Donnell), brings an arbiter — and a pawn — for the couple’s woes. Alice regards Kurt’s appearance as providential while Edgar warms to his “resignation.” Kurt, in turn, tells the pair (twice) that he pities them, and the play ends as it began, with husband and wife locked into a savage farce whose rules they alone know.
The evening’s primary asset is its macabre humor, particularly at the start as the two take comic relish in cutting one another down to size. Alice won’t let Edgar forget that this captain never became a major and that behind his pomposity lies an impoverished drunk whom even the local doctors loathe; Jones’ large eyes convey a gleeful pleasure in the malicious that can quickly turn to fear. Edgar, for his part, mocks his wife’s thespian pretensions while admitting an attraction to despair, and Neville has a field day scrunching up his face in a vain attempt to recall happy people he has known. (The tall, gaunt actor bears an intriguing resemblance to the late John Osborne, whose dyspeptic oeuvre owed a strong debt to Strindberg.)
But comically adept though they are, neither star freezes the blood, notwithstanding a vampirology interlude of which Anne Rice would approve. By the last act, the actors seem less and less connected to any reality, taking refuge instead in a battery of technically accomplished effects that characterize British acting at its most external. Still, when Edgar pushes Alice’s beloved piano off Patrick Watkinson’s circular set, one realizes what really is to blame — a circular text promising a dance unto death that instead leaves its performers running in place.