In Sartre’s No Exit, Hell is other people.
In August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, a play that probably influenced Sartre’s grim assessment of the human condition, Hell is just one person – the one you’re married to.
Drawing on his own poisonous romantic experiences, Strindberg paints a portrait of a couple bonded and warped by their mutual loathing.
Edgar (played here by Colin Friels) is a garrison captain, long past his prime and professionally irrelevant. His wife Alice (Pamela Rabe) is a former actress, steeped in bitterness for abandoning her art and agreeing to come to this backwater.
They are soon to mark their silver wedding anniversary but there’s nothing to celebrate. Food is short. Their home is a prison. They have no friends. There’s a party being thrown on the mainland this evening – Alice can hear the strains of a waltz drifting over the water – but they are not invited.
Enter Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Toby Schmitz), party-ready in white tie and tails and determined to make only a fleeting visit. He’s just been appointed quarantine master, but there’s no escaping the viral antipathy of Edgar and Alice. As old grudges surface and vampiric passions ignite, Kurt is infected by his hosts’ unhappiness. Before long he’s drawn into a war of emotional attrition.
The Dance of Death set the template for dysfunctional relationship dramas such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but this Judy Davis-directed production of a new May-Brit Akerholt translation steers away from scenes of stormy naturalism. The acting style here is heightened, tilted to the comic. As a result, nothing about Strindberg’s people seems at all real.
Nor does the world they inhabit. Designer Brian Thompson’s set has Alice and Edgar’s gloomy home take on a Dantean aspect with the characters largely confined to a circular stage surrounded by a moat that glows diabolically red. On the smeared and splattered back wall, written in five-foot high letters, are the words “Hell on Earth”.
Another word – “overstatement” – comes to mind.
Davis directing this cast is a box office draw if ever there was one. All involved have done some fine work on this stage: Rabe in last year’s Ghosts; Friels in 2016’s Faith Healer (which Davis directed); Schmitz in The Rover. But this dream-team combination falls disappointingly flat here, however, with each actor locked into characterisations and journeys that become monotonous even as the energy on stage is dialled up to frenetic and the atmosphere turns increasingly lurid.