Belvoir Street Theatre’s 2018 Season goes out with a bang with their final performance of the year: The Dance of Death, an absurdist masterpiece originally written by August Strindberg in 1900, has been brilliantly restaged with outstanding performances from Colin Friels (Edgar), Pamela Rabe (Alice) and Toby Schmitz (Kurt).
Before entering the theatre, I was warned that The Dance of Death is regarded by some as a fellow traveler to to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I wasn’t sure whether this appraisal should leave me excited or nervous; but The Dance of Death did not require comparison, as it exceeded all expectations. It provided all the absurdist beauty and existential questions of ‘Waiting for Godot’ in a snappy and entertaining way.
Whilst the writing, for the most part, was brilliant, it occasionally came across as somewhat tactless or overly simplified. Some of the subtleties of the absurdist classics were lost in translation. Occasionally it felt like answers were handed over on a silver platter, and I didn’t really have to think or work for anything. Subtext wasn’t used nearly to the extent that it could have been, so the enjoyment of coming to terms with the bleak and somewhat nihilistic outlook on the world that the great absurdist writers presented was taken away from audiences.
With that in mind, absurdism as a genre really isn’t for everyone: many viewers find it boring or disengaging or too abstract. For the general public, The Dance of Death hits a nice medium, presenting the comedy and making a dense script accessible to the general public, while still raising those important existential questions about the meaning of life and the world around us.
Clunky adaptations aside, a true highlight of the show was Brian Thomson’s set. Taking on the remote island setting off the west coast of Sweden, he literally created a haunting red moat that surrounded the stage. In itself, it was a brilliant way of conveying the isolation referenced throughout the play, and adding to the eerie and haunting nature. The rest of the set evoked a prison cell, with chains hanging from the ceiling and barbed wire fencing.
The detail given to the set should not be overlooked. From the water steadily dripping into the red lake throughout the performance, or the harrowing writing on the walls: the closer you look, the more you will find hidden in the set, which adds so much value to the show as a whole. Matt Scott’s lighting design was also brilliant and really set the scene, adding to the foreboding atmosphere and some of the terrifying mystery that the show created.
Pamela Rabe was breathtaking to watch and she cannot be faulted in this performance. She simultaneously brought light and life to the show while playing the decaying Alice, bringing so much maturity to the role. Colin Friels matched Rabe’s sublime performance and their bickering dynamic was effortless, and gave off the exhausting nature of the constant low level warfare of a loveless marriage (in the best way possible).
The way they fought with one another, despite their secret mutual love and adoration, was so complex, intricate and brilliant to watch. As an audience member I genuinely felt intrigued and excited to see what would happen next. I was constantly on the edge of my seat and even a little afraid watching the performance.
Toby Schmitz’s performance was also great to watch, however he didn’t quite bring as much to the stage as Friels and Rabe’s effortlessly fast-paced dialogue and easily believable relationship.
All in all, however, The Dance of Death brought this Swedish classic to life once more.
The Dance of Death runs until December 23. Tickets and performance times are available here: https://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-dance-of-death