Dance me to the end of time.

Colin Friels plays a cranky, heavy-drinking man who has had a hard life, is nasty to his partner, is self-centred, and is on the verge of madness. Again.

Pamela Rabe plays a woman who is being driven mad, is in a prison of a marriage, and has started on the downward slope towards death. Again.

Toby Schmitz inserts humour as the affable outsider who appears as a contrast to the main characters, and starts to become enmeshed into a drama not of his own making. Again.

There’s more than a soupçon of predictability in both the play and this production, yet I was somehow engaged until the end.

Judy Davis directs husband Friels in this adaptation of August Strindberg’s play. Set in a remote garrison on an island of Sweden, the play revolves around the dysfunctional relationship of Alice and Edgar (the Captain). Thrown together they are in a rhythm of hatred, revenge, nastiness, and exasperation. They have been together 25 years and they talk about celebrating their milestone together – not entirely ironically.

Strindberg is a nice detour from the more common Scandinavian, Ibsen. It is a little more modern but equally bleak. Rabe plays Alice, Friels’ long-suffering wife. It must have crossed the minds of many in the audience to wonder: what might the play have been had Davis played Alice opposite her real-life husband. Would it have had the spirit of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There is a similar humour in this play.

Strindberg dissects the relationship, swaps the power between characters, and manages to insert a few uncomfortable laughs as well as some real laughs at the absurdity of the situation.

Rabe essentially plays three roles, distinguished by hair style. The first, in a brown short 20s style bob, is the bored, disinterested wife, who is stuck in an unhappy marriage that she is too good for. Her second hair style is her natural salt and pepper long hair. In this guise she plays a more fed-up role where she is honest about the state of her relationship, being isolated from friends and family, losing the best years of her life, desperate to start a new life without her husband, veritably begging for him to die. The third wig – a red wavy bob – is the one she is empowered by. She is vampish and back to her days as an actress on stage. She is playing a part and it gives her confidence. She is seductive and powerful.

Belvoir has gone all out with the staging for Dance of Death. In contrast to many of the stark, white sets often seen in Belvoir, this set includes a moat and round stage, with prison-like chains hung from the industrial-style walls, and effects.

To me Schmitz introduced the humour – his typical presence of the hapless third wheel gave him license to milk the audience for sympathy, laughs, and identification with his character. He is manipulated by both Alice and Edgar – first to stay with them, then to take sides. He sees and hears stories about them that are alien to him. His first appearance on stage in a sharp suit sets him apart from the others from the start. His calmness when he enters also provides contrast but by the end he too is consumed by the craziness of the isolation and the two protagonists.

Dance of Death was written in 1900 and took nine years to reach the Swedish stage. This is a play about a couple who have been together, alone, for 25 long years. (Is there some similarity to being stranded in Ikea after closing time?) This is an examination of the forces that both damage and strengthen a relationship. It exposes the survival strategies that they use over the years. It’s a more modern play than the publication date suggests. It could be set in any era at all. There are recriminations and bitterness, though with some sort of vestige of love, which occasionally appears unexpectedly.  For example, during sudden incidents with Edgar’s heart, Alice instinctively checks he is alright.

It’s a heavy play in substance but it is lifted by the humour and great acting of the three stars. The roles are likely to be sought by big names in theatre to stretch themselves in a play not often seen. Each role is equally strong with changes in outlook, mental state, and level of crazy.

I’m like those other members of the audience who would have liked to have seen the real life couple Davis and Friels in the leads. No disrespect to Rabe, who is terrific, but the relationship between a real life couple, who in this case have been married over 34 years, could have been something really special. Schmitz, for me, is someone I could watch just turning pages of a script. All in all, an entertaining night out.

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