In "Dance of Death," Edgar and Alice (Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren)—a military captain and a former actress—go at each other relentlessly, each knowing how to inflict wounds with precision and economy, and how to keep them open. (They may remind you of a more contemporary fun couple: George and Martha, of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") Their attacks are so predictable and so regular that you laugh as often as you wince. As in the old gag wherein a guy calls out familiar jokes by number instead of going to the trouble of telling them, Alice, when she wants to get in a dig at Edgar over, say, a book he wrote on rifles that has been surpassed by someone else's work, could simply call out, "No. 8!" Edgar can't even play a card game without turning it into an occasion for combat: when he pulls out a notebook to enter the score, we can see on the pages the tallies of many past engagements.
All Edgar and Alice have is each other, living alone, as they do, in a tower—a former prison—on an island outpost off the coast of Sweden, and isolated from the other inhabitants, whom Edgar calls "bottom-feeders." (The tower, a huge curved brick structure designed by Santo Loquasto, thrusts into the stage from one of the wings like the prow of a ship, or a leaning Flatiron Building, letting in only the tiniest cracks of light from the outside world.) They have sent their two children away to school, partly to protect them from collateral emotional damage, but also because the children would no doubt be an irritating distraction from Alice and Edgar's all-consuming passion for tearing each other down. Like ham actors, they are soaked in the theatricality of their own predicament: when Mirren says that in the tower her children grew to have an "ashen inmate look," her tone takes on a melodramatic detachment, as if Alice were congratulating herself on her delivery of this vivid line. McKellen, revelling in the easy, vernacular phrasing of Greenberg's adaptation, is crisply, sardonically flamboyant. When a guest refuses a drink, and Edgar says, disapprovingly, "I want excess, or what's the point?" the audience rustles appreciatively, as if McKellen, in passing along Edgar's philosophy of life, had also described in a nutshell the essence of his own performance. Alice acts almost as his straight man, feeding him lines that are bound to set him off. When she objects to Edgar's yawning in response to one of her remarks, he says that he yawned as a "change of pace" from giving the same response he's given hundreds of times before. "So my yawn could be interpreted to mean: 'I can't be bothered,' or 'How right you are, my sweetums,' or 'Why not just shut up, hm?' " Alice, clearly enjoying this, says, not entirely without basis, "You are really too charming this evening." He is the windbag beneath her wings.
Onto this battlefield wanders Alice's cousin Kurt (David Strathairn), who has come to the island as a quarantine officer. It's an ambiguous role—Kurt either helped make the match between Edgar and Alice or tried to prevent it, depending on whom you believe—and largely a passive, reactive one, as he gets sucked into the marital maelstrom.
Alice and Edgar chew Kurt up and spit him out, and it is in their betrayal of him that we see their true brutality and, at the same time, their true tenderness toward each other. By the end of the play, Alice and Edgar are facing truths that go beyond the particular facts of their marriage to the elemental facts of existence. Edgar, having had a glimpse of his own mortality, speaks of losing his "talent to turn life into fiction." McKellen and Mirren magnificently turn Strindberg's fiction into life, and McKellen, in his deep embrace of the role, takes it one step further, showing performance itself to be a powerful life force. As a presence onstage, he is the sound of two hands clapping.
Photos by Brigitte Lacombe