26 October 2001
Dance of Death
The "pantomime scene"
From: Dale Edwards email@example.com
Q: My partner and I went to see Dance of Death on Sept. 28. It was wonderful! Mr. McKellen was thrilling to watch on stage. Specifically during the second act, he tosses the contents of the room about. There was no dialogue, but the audience was in a trance. Beautiful!
A: Strindberg academics consider the "pantomime scene" in Dance of Death as central to the play. It comes after the Captain has survived a heart attack and accepted his doctor's warning that death is on the horizon. Alone at night he is playing patience in vain because he impatiently throws the cards outside where they fall on the rocks overlooking the ocean. These are followed by his stash of whisky as he starts to eliminate objects and attitudes which he has long clung to. The lighting of many candles and eventual introduction of a live cat are symbols of his changing spirit. It's a difficult scene no words but an accompanying soundtrack of thunder, animals and other musicalised effects in keeping with Strindberg’s stage directions. I'm so pleased you weren't baffled by it all as I was through much of the rehearsal period.
From: Dan Barron firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: I can't help wondering what the drink actually was. A stage prop, or real whiskey?
A: It would be a foolhardy actor particularly if like me he were virtually tee-total to risk drinking anything other than colored water whilst acting. The traditional brew for onstage whiskey or brandy is diluted cold tea. As my tipple seems tasteless, I expect Fred Ricci (in charge of props) is using vegetable dye. As for the morphine which sedates the Captain at the end of act one? Tap water.
Fred Ricci backstage at The Broadhurst
Stage v. Screen
Q: Bonjour. Four days ago, I had the chance to go and see Dance of Death. It was my first experience of theater on Broadway and I loved it. I've seen seen several of your films: X-men and Gods and Monsters, both I liked a lot. After seeing all of this, I wondered if you, being an actor from the theater found it frustrating to act for the movies. Because I feel that acting for the theater is very demanding: tone of voice, tension, concentration but it leaves time for the actor to play and invent. I think the cinema is more technical and leaves less place for the improvisation of the actor. Merci.
A: You land on a crucial difference between working in front of an audience, where the story is told at one go and the bitty way in which filming proceeds to gather the evidence that a director will edit into a narrative. The actors rule on stage. The responsibility and strain are worth it because the result is a shared one. Acting on screen, particularly in solo close up, is more about feeling than effect. And technicalities of voice projection and physical stamina are irrelevant. Theatre acting is a workout. The camera is a shrink.
From: Ruth Bonnet
Not a question: just a comment. I had one of the most memorable afternoons at the theatre in my life on Sunday. What a superb performance (OK, Helen Mirren is no slouch either!). And what a hilariously dark portrayal. It was like watching my parents but without the Yiddish. Completely and absolutely fabulous from beginning to end.
A: I wouldn’t usually broadcast such a fulsome letter but I loved your relating Alice and Edgar’s home life to your own! In the audience’s laughter at the Broadhurst I fancied there was a recognition that, despite their theatricality and playfulness, Strindberg’s characters portray a humanity which we all share.
Q: Will Dance of Death be touring?
A: At the moment the run at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York will end in January, although an extension of six weeks is possible. After that the actors have other engagements so there will be no tour, I’m afraid.
From: Jill Marino DrMelfi525@aol.com
Q: I saw the play on October 12. For my first time on Broadway, it was amazing. I must praise you, Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, and rest of the cast, as well as the director Sean Mathias for doing such a wonderful job. I'm very fortunate to be seeing the play again in December.
A: Although most audiences only ever see one performance, I’m encouraged you will be returning to Dance of Death. Each time we do it, new things are discovered and so the production becomes more assured. Perhaps you will note and approve of these developments.
Q: What do you think of the costumes for "Dance of Death"? Are you tempted to go to Halloween parties dressed as Edgar?
A: Edgar’s costumes are based on his being a Captain in the Swedish army, 100 years ago. Although in Act Two, he wears a splendid white dress uniform with a plumed helmet and sabre, there is nothing spooky about Santo Loquasto’s designs. Though it could be noted that one of Helen Mirren’s dresses is pumpkin-colored. . . .
Q: Is this really the first time you've danced on stage or in film?
Q: Well, not really, as I danced about as a young actor in productions of Aladdin, Salad Days and maybe in other shows that I’ve forgotten. More recently, in Enemy of the People I attempted a celebratory jig at the close of Act One.
Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe
for The New Yorker