26 November 2001
Dance of Death
Q: Richard III, An Enemy of The People and now Dance of Death - do you only like to do the classics?
A: If I were asked to be in a stunning new play, I'd be delighted. The next best thing is a stunning new translation of an old one - such as Richard Greenberg's treatment of Dance of Death. I'm hoping that audiences at the Broadhurst Theatre will feel that August Strindberg is as advanced, outrageous, perceptive and funny as he was 100 years back. Preserve me from Museum Theatre. As for non-classics on film, Apt Pupil and Gods and Monsters were both adapted from living writers - Stephen King and Christopher Bram.
Q: Whose idea was this Dance of Death on Broadway?
A: Gerry Schoenfeld, president of the Shubert Organisation, asked Sean Mathias to consider directing a Broadway revival of Dance of Death two or more years ago. So to him the thanks and ever thanks. Sean recruited Helen Mirren and me. The Shuberts have other producers backing the 17-week run.
Ian McKellen, Sean Mathias, and Gerald Schoenfeld, on opening night
Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett
Q: Have you worked with Helen Mirren or others involved before?
A: Not with Helen, whom I have admired from afar since she sang rock in David Hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Sean Mathias and I were living together in 1981, my year in Amadeus - another Shubert production also at the Broadhurst. So this is a sentimental engagement for me. He directed me as Max in Bent at the Royal National Theatre and on film as Max's Uncle Freddie. I was in his first West End play Cowardice". And he directed me and Antony Sher as Vanya and Astrov at the National.
Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen in Dance of Death
Photo by Joan Marcus
Q: What appeals to you about acting on Broadway?
A: Acting on Broadway, you feel uniquely part of the city around you: a city whose principal self-image is fixed somewhere between chorus girl and leading man. Unlike capital cities, New York has no national responsibilities. There is no head of state to distract from Broadway's pre-eminence as it reflects the city back to itself. So New York embraces visiting performers who honour a community which honours the arts. I am feeling once more very happy to be part of the heart of Broadway.
Q: What do you think of Richard Greenberg's translation/adaption?
A: This is not an adaptation and the structure of the original is intact with minimal cuts in the dialogue. I don't know Swedish, so I can only compare this new translation with previous ones. Greenberg's is, without doubt, the most speakable, retaining a grammatical formality which suits a play written 100 years ago. But it has such a confident tone, the thoughts and feelings sound shockingly immediate. There are echoes of Noel Coward in the barbed exchanges between Edgar and his wife Alice and of Samuel Beckett too in the despair which underpins the wit.
Q: Does Edgar's character require you to acquire new skills?
A: Here I am playing another soldier but with the exception of a particularly nasty outburst, there is no violence, so I haven't had to learn a fight as I did for Richard III, Iago, and the rest of them. But there is a dance that Strindberg describes as "some kind of Hungarian dance, clashing his spurs" accompanied by his wife Alice on the piano with "The Entry of the Boyars". Santo Loquasto's set is raked rather sinisterly but I've worked on steeper inclines.
Q: Almost all of the shows on Broadway are big musicals or comedies; how does Dance of Death fit in?
A: George Bernard Shaw has been playing on 42nd Street this summer and Ibsen and Chekov are back in town, so why shouldn't Strindberg play opposite Mel Brooks on 44th? That's always been the Broadway way — entertainment comes in many shades from light to dark and the same audiences enjoy both. Since the birth of modern theatre in ancient Greece, satyr plays and tragedies have happily co-habited. Shakespeare who knew a thing or two about keeping an audience happy, worked with the greatest clowns of his day. It doesn't feel like trespassing to be doing a world classic amongst the musical and dance theatre that dominates Broadway. It feels more like coming home.
The Broadhurst Theatre
Photo by Keith Stern
From: Martin O'Reilly
Q: Is there really no hope of the production coming to London UK? If you and Ms Mirren cannot sell Strindberg to the West End who can?!
A: I sympathise with the feeling that stage productions should not be the province of just one theatre, which is why I try to tour as much as possible - a traditional pastime for rogues and vagabonds. But this play was only ever intended for Broadway and wasn't seen outside New York beforehand, although some locals here assume, considering the director and casting, that it originated in London!
To now re-mount Dance of Death in the West End, once it closes here on 13 January is a possibility and both the producer and director would like it do so. But there is many a slip - like availability of the crucial personnel and of an appropriate theatre. I should certainly enjoy bringing Captain Edgar home, as it were. Watch this site!