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28 October 2014
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First night - 06.03.03
The Dance of Death
Both Frances de la Tour and Sir Ian McKellen have done the play before in separate productions: he on Broadway in 2001, de la Tour some twenty years earlier at Riverside Studios
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Love and loathing in Strindberg's classic drama with a pair of top-grade actors for company makes for a compelling evening, says our critic Mark Shenton...

 

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The Dance of Death
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The Dance of Death (Lyric Shaftesbury)

Marriages are breaking down all over the West End at the moment, with Dawn French and Eileen Atkins both losing their husbands in My Brilliant Divorce and Honour respectively. But now The Dance of Death proves that a fate far worse than separating may actually be to stay together.

"As in a Samuel Beckett play, there's the strangled laughter of fearing death even as it is hoped for..."

In this bleakly brilliant August Strindberg classic - subtly and frequently comically rendered in a new version by the versatile American playwright Richard Greenberg (whose Three Days of Rain and Take Me Out) were Donmar Warehouse hits - we watch a couple desperately bonded not by love but by mutual contempt.

It isn't love, as the pop classic has it, that keeps them together, but intense loathing, and it's going to be a fight to the death - "I now know that only death can prize us apart," the wife admits.

And when she is told that her husband might die of his heart condition, she replies brightly, "Oh, thank God!"

utterly compelling

As in a Samuel Beckett play, there's the strangled laughter of fearing death even as it is hoped for, and the endless hours of despair and fury to be filled in the meantime.

They are far from easy company this couple, to each other, to their guest, or to us. But fortunately, the top-grade actors who take us on this long day's journey into night and the following day make it an utterly compelling one.

Frances de la Tour
Frances de la Tour: brittle and brilliant

Ian McKellen, returning to the London stage for the first time in five years, is stunning as the husband in his fire, fury and despair; and the brittle, brilliant Frances de la Tour matches him in her extraordinary, withering disdain as his wife.

As their toxically claustrophobic dynamic is interrupted by the arrival of Owen Teale's visitor Kurt, he becomes as helplessly trapped in the middle of their violent, verbal game-playing as we are.

But at least he, like us, can get away at the end. It's a relief to finally leave them to their private, self-made hell.

The Dance of Death is at the Lyric Shaftesbury, Shaftesbury Avenue W1 until 31 May. Tickets £12.50 - £37.50. Box Office: 0870 890 1107

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