The underside of the marriage plot is the marriage-as-blood-sport plot.
In 1900 the so-heralded ‘father of modern Swiss literature’, August Strindberg, wrote a theatrical template for the marriage-turned-sour drama called The Dance with Death. In it, an ailing artillery captain and military writer, Edgar, faces off with his wife Alice, a ‘once celebrated actress’ we’re told, in a series of escalating rounds that inaugurated the structure of this brand of bourgeois tragedy as a cycle of horrific repetitions rather than a teleological narrative moving toward an end.
In 1969, the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt adapted the second half of Strindberg’s play, ironizing its bathos and earnest marital angst. Retitled Play Stringberg, Dürrenmatt’s work set the play in a boxing ring, literalising both the cramped claustrophobia of Alice and Edgar’s home – a barren, island military barracks from which both their children and their servants appear to have fled – as well as the theatrical spectacle itself of watching hateful adversaries fighting it out. With very little of the hopes for redemption of the earlier play, Dürrenmatt adapted Dance with Death into a series of brutal – and brutally funny – boxing rounds between these marital malcontents.
And so it was that Strindberg’s naturalist bourgeois marriage tragedy spawned Dürrenmatt’s absurd marriage farce.
As a genre, this tends to be a no-win game between two vicious, vitriolic parties; food, booze or furniture may get thrown around and/or at other people; the already weary bodies and egos of middle-age heterosexuals will often get punished to extremes, with actors shrieking and cursing, attacking and toppling over one another, and generally exposing themselves in a carnival of abjection, humiliation and impropriety. George and Martha’s relentless rounds of Getting The Guests (and each other) in Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf is the iconic example, highlighting the genre’s potential for an artfulness far beyond it’s comedy of unhappy marriage. There are echoes of Dürrenmatt’s brand of black comedy in the War of the Roses, the culmination of the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas 1980s ‘battle of the sexes’ zeitgeist. These are comedies of hate whose perverse narrative pleasures include the lasceratingly witty insult, the outrageous upturning of domestic property and proprieties, and the endless renewal of rage and one-upmanship – renewable, that is, until it culminates (though rarely resolves itself) in the exhaustion of both performers and audiences.
In Malthouse Theatre’s adaptation, there is plenty of tumbling, mostly by Jacek Koman, whose Edgar is like a carnivorous primate, still predatory but now less agile on his feet. He is still charismatic in his way, and in Koman’s performance there is a visceral potency through which you can sense the sex appeal that might have once seduced Alice (Belinda McClory) but now secures her in a permanent state of disgust.
He stalks her around their private cage, and then collapses into dribbling swoons that are the bizarre symptom of the illness that is killing him, but that he is in denial of. Alice has some grotesque sex with Kurt (David Paterson), her cousin and the third party in this prison à trois, who, like Honey and Nick in Albee’s play, becomes both foil and referee for the ageing couple’s toxic feuds. But the most pleasurable excesses on this stage are the elaborate, arabesque insults Alice and Edgar exchange with one another. Alice in particular exploits those moments when her husband is ostensibly unconscious to give vent to profanity after vulgarity after expletive; these moments are the highlights of Tom Holloway’s translation of the text.
Director Matthew Lutton has staged this adaptation in a glass house between two tiered seating banks, a design by Dale Ferguson that gives the audience privileged access to Alice and Edgars’ battles whilst providing for furtive glances at the chortling audience on the other side of the ring. It’s a crafty conceit, reminding us of our taste for the comedy of cruelty; the Melbourne Theatre Company often treats its subscribers to such spectacles, (Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf in 2007; Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage in 2009, and so on). Dance of Death is self-aware Stuff White People Like: plays about marred couples who hate one another. It is the effects of this conceit in which I sensed the motives of Lutton’s production: the boomer audience whopped it up for 90 minutes, then, wiping the sweat from their brows, raced off to the bar for a stiff drink. Exposing the audience to it’s own horrified glee in this way can’t quite be contrived as effectively by the spectacles of emotional and physical rage on, say, Jersey Shore or Real Housewives, and as sophisticated a critique of the pleasure of these spectacles is rarely offered.
The plot of Dance with Death, consisting of convoluted twist after convoluted twist that proceed from spiteful lie after spiteful lie – which are, frankly, hard to recall – becomes secondary to this exercise in violent fun. Recommended for mature audiences.
Dance with Death at Malthouse Theatre until 18 May.
Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.