(This will be brief and totally fail to mention some essential aspects of theatre – acting, lighting, sound – in order to make a focused argument with a limited palette of means. Since I am going to be critical of the production, anything not mentioned – acting, lighting, sound – generally did not participate in the failure of the production.)
Matthew Lutton’s Dance of Death is the weakest production I’ve seen at the Malthouse in a long time, jostling with some of the most perfunctory stagings of Michael Kantor’s. It is so disjontedly and confusingly put together, every obvious entry point (who wrote it, what it is about, what it tries to do) requires such long-winded guesswork, that I don’t even know where to begin with my reflection.
August Strindberg’s play about the purgatorial misery of patriarchal marriage, replete with glib misogyny, was re-written by Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1969 as a parody of both Western bourgeois marriage and Western bourgeois drama intent on depicting it as a tragedy, and not, I don’t know, a blip of history that would be moribund by the 1960s anyway. The Malthouse production stages the latter text, in a further reworking by Tom Holloway.
Holloway mainly seems to have added lots of fairly repetitive cursing, which weighs the technically sound Durrenmatt down with a lot of glib humour, and derails the concept almost completely. Durrenmatt’s deconstruction is a logical response of the culture and the theatre of his time to Strinberg; it is a dialogue of two moments in history (including history of theatre). What Holloway’s voice adds to this conversation, if anything, is the ignorance and insularity of Melbourne 2013: we don’t understand what’s going on over there, we don’t see how it reflects on us over here, but we could create some nice stage images. And we’ll make everyone speak in local vernacular, because we know that people will laugh. It is like that moment in which an interesting and engrossing conversation is hijacked by a fresh young graduate who just really wants to talk to these people; and everyone politely waits until he has finished, hoping they won’t lose the thread of the conversation. (I apologise if my language is harsh. I think this is the most accurate analogy.)
Lutton’s staging is a pastiche that clearly isn’t intentional. There are references to a boxing ring and fight rounds (per Durrenmatt), but the set is a glass box in traverse. This is actually quite nice – the effect is that of an aquarium – but the physical constraints of the space clash with the constant references to characters having been to other places outside, just moments ago. There is modern language, but period costume. There is entering and exiting, but nobody can leave the aquarium. There are echoes of sets and effects popularised in Australia by Andrews, Schlusser, Stone – but to no obvious unified goal.
The first third of the narrative is gripping, as we watch a married couple descend from a chat into a full-blown domestic argument with recognisable automatism (there is parody in it, but there is parody in every real-life ongoing domestic dispute). However, once they’ve arrived into the fight, Alice and Edgar can’t get out, because the play won’t move. It quickly becomes a hostage situation: Alice and Edgar are trapped for eternity in their marriage, and the audience is trapped in the theatre with them, waiting out the improbable plot twists and personality changes. It all feels exactly like a certain kind of low-grade Hollywood film, in which the plot turns more wildly, and faster, the closer we are getting to the end; the characters’ personalities keep stretching in order to fill the ever-expanding revelations about their past actions; and it all seems written by a script-robot.
And then there is the wildly broad tone of the production. It is played bleak and violent and shoutingly, and it is as exhausting to be privy to a staged domestic as to a real one. But the tone keeps slipping into broad-farcical (courtesy of swearing); it is as if Lutton and Holloway want to tell a tragedy, but keep getting fits of giggles. It could, at a stretch, work as a tragicomedy if the plot referred to a known reality of anyone, anywhere, today. However, it does not, and cannot. The plot is Durrentmatt’s farce of the 19th-century bourgeois drama. The satire of his work is directed towards the self-dramatising excess of the entire genre. Oh, but how the creative team disagrees with me on that point…! And how they seem to want the tragedy of Strindberg AND the humour of Durrenmatt without listening to the nuances in the conversation between the two – because the conversation is maybe too complicated, and about ideology and politics and other such things that Australian culture is not too accustomed to talking about.
In all this confusion of intent and effect, what I lost was any sense of what this production positively wanted to say. It was definitely something designed by a committee, but I couldn’t even tell you what the committee was aiming at. Was it a good bourgeois marriage drama? Or a middle-class farce? Or a well-made tragedy from the dramatic canon? Irreverent young take on a classical author?
But here is what it is not: an exploration of the currently hotly debated institution of marriage; a formal argument about the ideology inherent in theatrical staging; a postmodern conversation with the dramatic history; a Beckettian existential contemplation; or a bleak parody of a tired genre that is genuinely fun to watch.
** Disclaimer: I am a member of the Malthouse Theatre Artistic Counsel in 2013, which means I might have to provide some structured feedback on the 2013 season, some time in the future.
DANCE OF DEATH
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
English text by Tom Holloway
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Set & Costume Design Dale Ferguson
Lighting Design Paul Jackson
Composition & Sound Design Kelly Ryall,
Cast Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory, David Paterson,
18 April – 19 May, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse.