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Jacek Koman and Belinda McClory cut loose on one another in the Malthouse's Dance of Death

“What is the use of a comedy of love, since we hate each other?” wrote August Strindberg to his second wife, Frida Uhl, immediately before he abandoned her. “You hate me from a feeling of inferiority; I am a superior who has done you nothing but good; and I hate you as an enemy, because you behave like one.”

Most of Strindberg’s oeuvre is marked by something of this hostility and fear. Hate, open or understood, is the engine of his drama, if not his life, and nowhere is this more explicit than his marriage tragedy The Dance of Death (1900), a bleak study of the way marriage unnaturally contorts the souls of men and women.

The play was adapted in 1969 by Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt who exaggerated its bathos and, in Durrenmatt’s own words, “developed a comedy about bourgeois marriage tragedies”, parodying Strindberg’s tragic hand-wringing on the marriage subject. Though scarcely an optimist himself, Durrenmatt had little sympathy with Strindberg’s histrionics of hate, and of none his mistrust of women or comedy. His adaptation – which he called Play Strindberg – is an essentially ironic, even winkingly cynical, take on the institution of marriage and the traumas that people – people like Strindberg – attribute to it.

Although this new Malthouse production uses Strindberg’s original title, it’s very much Durrenmatt’s text: almost double the length of Strindberg’s original, replete with farcical plot twists that mock the gloomy Swede’s famous power games and staged as twelve “rounds” in a boxing match, amplifying the idea of a Strindbergian battle of the sexes.

It’s performed here in a traverse, with the action contained in a large glass-walled room. Things appear to have hit rock bottom for the two combatants, Alice and Edgar. They have finally driven away the last of their servants. No witness now remains to the bitter and humiliating struggle that is their marriage. Enter Kurt, Alice’s young cousin, one-time love interest and the catalyst to a series of absurd duplicities that plunge them all into a hell as yet uncharted. Their loathing, it appears, knows no bottom.

For the first half, at least, this premise remains engaging. Australian playwright Tom Holloway has adapted the text, and parcels out the verse in compact chunks that Jacek Koman and Belinda McClory hurl at one another with a deadly aim. The tirelessness of their duelling and the unrelieved intensity of their hostility is hypnotic, as though without Kurt’s interruption this insidious routine might have gone on for eternity.

But the spell wears off as the convoluted plot takes over and director Matthew Lutton’s grip on the action begins to loosen. Rather than Strindberg’s devastating emotional reversals, where developments in the story seem to overthrow entire worlds, the twists here rely on increasingly convoluted lies which only confirm each character in his or her own spite. The outcome of all their manoeuvring never seems especially important, and the last half hour is spent by characters and audience alike looking eagerly toward a conclusion to the silliness.

Granted, it’s meant to be silly. This is Durrenmatt having fun with the conventions of bourgeois domestic naturalism, but I’m not sure that Durrenmatt’s fun stands up too well today.

In recent decades, Durrenmatt’s plays have fallen very much out of fashion. This is unfortunate, for there is genius aplenty in early and mid-career works like The Physicists (1961) and The Visit (1958), not to mention the novels, short stories and critical writings. Looking at his plays from the late sixties on, however, when Play Strindberg (1969), Portrait of a Planet (1968) and The Cheater(1972) were premièred, the writing seems patchy and the comic manners decidedly of their time.

Perhaps it might have been better to skip Durrenmatt – who seems somewhat aloof on the marriage question – and go instead to Strindberg’s original, given the current intensity of feeling around the institution of marriage and its personal and social relevance. Few playwrights have been more obsessed with the existential significance of marriage than Strindberg.

Strindberg might also have suited Holloway better, given his success with material of a more tragic nature. Holloway’s use of contemporary – and often very creative – profanities is hilarious. It lends the story a wonderfully anachronistic aspect, an element of the surreal which goes well with Lutton’s glass-cabinet presentation. Yet he struggles to move beyond insults as a solution to updating the farce.

Still, it’s wonderful to see performers like Koman and McClory cutting loose on one another at close quarters. Durrenmatt described his adaptation as “an exercise piece for actors”, and these two offer a lacerating demonstration, one minute broad and comically violent, the next, closed over and subtly shown. David Paterson, who was outstanding in the MTC’s Tribes last year, seems considerably weaker. But then his character, Kurt, is lumped with some fairly tepid material and much of the time he seems at a loose end.

One advantage in putting the action behind glass – albeit smudged and splattered glass – is that it allows the audience to really study these performances in fine detail and take them apart. It’s quite an experience, and Koman and McClory stand up well against our disinhibited voyeurism. The glass, though, is problematic, not least because it makes literal the kind of separation between the audience and the stage that Durrenmatt himself railed against in his famous tract, “Problems of the Theatre”, further abetting our disengagement with the more serious content of the drama.

The glass – or the way the glass is used – also brings back unbidden many memories of recent productions past. There’s quite a bit in Lutton’s direction which seems to proceed directly from the work of, say, Simon Stone, Daniel Schlusser or, more distantly, Benedict Andrews. Those directors all borrowed – and continue to borrow – from contemporaries and predecessors, sometimes shamelessly, but here the references feel uninspired, somehow conventional. An imitation rather than a daring theft, perhaps? In any case, it only further adds to the show’s vague air of melancholic emptiness.

From moment to moment there’s plenty of energy in the performances, Koman and McClory restlessly stalking their cage, and if nothing else it’s a wonderful opportunity to see Koman, a native of Perth and one of the country’s best talents, on a Melbourne stage. The insults are so brutal and expertly delivered that this production is bound to provoke at least a wincing giggle in most, but to me it feels a mirthless, bitter kind of laughter, indicating the essential hollowness of this production.

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By Andrew Furhmann   |   Photos by Jeff Busby

Dance of Death video

Dance of Death details

113 Sturt St, Southbank 3006

Telephone 03 9685 5111

Price $30.00 to $59.00

Date 18 Apr 2013-12 May 2013

Open Various

Director: Matthew Lutton

Cast: Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory, David Paterson

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