Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory and David Paterson in Dance Of Death | Malthouse Theatre

The blackest of comedies, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Dance of Death is a complex and absurdist piece of literature. Adapted from August Strindberg’s 1900 play about a marriage gone psychotically wrong, this bleakly hilarious play is currently being hosted by the Malthouse Theatre, under the skillful direction of Matthew Lutton.

The first thing that the audience member will be struck by is the intriguing mise en scene. Tony Award-nominated designer Dale Ferguson has conceived of something truly remarkable with this set, constructing it entirely in a glass box with the audience members arranged on each side. All three actors — Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory and David Paterson — remain on stage the entire time, even while they are not involved in the current scene. This is strategic: it adds to the claustrophobic feel of the script and the overall entrapment the characters suffer from.

Durrenmatt condensed Strindberg’s original text into a series of boxing rounds; each scene change signalled by the ringing of a bell and McClory shouting the round number. And indeed, this play is a brutal match, with no holds barred and no punches pulled. It may in fact be the most creative abuse you have ever heard.

Alice (McClory) and Edgar (Koman) are an ageing couple with an undisguised contempt for each other. Isolated on an island, their surrounds reflect their desolate lifestyles. Trapped with only each other and the memories of two children who died and two who no longer love them. They are visited one day by Alice’s cousin (and former lover) Kurt (Paterson), who at first is a welcome distraction but gradually unveils the homicidal truth lurking behind the couple’s intense relationship.

What begins as a potentially happily-ever-after love triangle soon unravels as each character reveals their true personalities. Paterson is impeccable as the well-to-do, but secretly heartbroken Kurt, whose crisp dress and cultured manner reflects his proper breeding. He is the only one on stage with any manners, and his deep affection for Alice is touching — almost.

Alice herself is something to behold. Hostile and snakelike, she has lived her life “swindled away in Bluebeard’s Castle”, with a man she settled for and grew to hate with every passing year. Indulging in fantasies about her “success” as an actress from the old days, Alice’s wasted life has slowly passed her by in a manner that is “as crazy as a bag of cocks”. McClory’s primitive and unpredictable rage pierces the dialogue sporadically, as she shifts from a sophisticated lady of the house to a furious woman scorned.

And then there is Edgar, the antagonist and unapologetic villain of the piece. Jacek Koman is utterly brutal in his portrayal of a violent, drunken, contemptuous man who is every bit as disenchanted with his wife as she with him. Edgar’s health is waning, but he is not about to let that stop him from tormenting Alice, who miserably anticipates his death. Koman dominates the stage with his abuse, arrogance and vulgarity. He is easy to hate, until act three, when the reasons for his cruel nature begin to emerge.

Dance of Death will not be for everyone. It uses frequent and over-the-top coarse language, and simulates a grotesque, incestuous sexual performance. It is a difficult show to sit through, but is worth doing so if you are not easily offended. Dance of Death has plenty to say about society, love, and the sanctity/imprisonment of the marital vow.

The details: Dance Of Death plays Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until May 19. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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