More than a century after Strindberg's relentlessly brutal play first appeared, it has arrived like a thunderbolt in a last minute production in the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow's Circle Studio. Conceived and directed by co-artistic director of the Vox Motus company, Candice Edmunds, this new version of the first part of Strindberg's play is penned by Frances Poet, for which Edmunds has pulled together a veritable supergroup of collaborators both on stage and off.
Onstage, the not so happy couple of Alice and the Captain are played by Lucianne McEvoy and Tam Dean Burn, with Alice's cousin Kurt played by Andy Clark. Clark last appeared at the Citz in the company's main stage production of The Libertine, while McEvoy was recently seen in the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh's production of Conor McPherson's play, The Weir. Burn came to the play having played the same role last time The Dance of Death was seen at the Citizens when Stewart Laing directed it in the same Circle space.
Offstage, the play's soundtrack will be provided by Luke Sutherland, Burn's collaborator on the stage adaptation of Sutherland's novel, Venus As A Boy. In terms of design, lighting is provided for such an intimate space by regular Vox Motus collaborator, Simon Wilkinson, while set and costumes look set to be delivered with a flourish by the National Theatre of Scotland's outgoing associate director Graham McLaren before he departs to co-run the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. All of whom make quite a team for such a rarely performed piece of work.
“Something about the play spoke to me,” says Edmunds. “I picked up a collection of Strindberg to look at a completely different play, but I loved how brutal this one is. I know some people think Strindberg is very dour, but he's also very funny in the blackest way possible. These two people are having this argument at the most viciously extreme level possible, and I think I must have this penchant for darkness.”
With Vox Motus co-director and Magic Circle member Jamie Harrison, with whom Edmunds has created works such as Dragon, currently working on the illusions for the forthcoming stage version of Harry Potter, Edmunds' production isn't being presented under the Vox Motus banner, but under her own name in association with the Citz.
“We could never have made The Dance of Death a Vox Motus piece,” she says. “Something like this isn't really within our remit, and doing it in the Circle Studio, which is now this stripped out space, that change of parameters has made fore something more intimate than how it might usually be done. No way were we going to make it a nineteenth century drawing room piece.”
Originally set over three days on a desert island, the play has seen Poet and Edmunds have rip into things with an abandon that has left much of it on the cutting room floor. This includes an entire second half which Strindberg wrote after the first part had already been performed.
“I think the second half is pretty forgettable,” is how Edmunds sees it. “We pretty much took a hatchet to Strindberg's original, and are doing it with a cast of three in one setting and with a strict time-frame so it takes place over one day rather than three. But that's okay, because it's not a museum piece, and it's a lot more fun than just doing an old version.”
Not that Laing's production was in any way old hat when it was produced at the Citz in November 2000, as Burn would no doubt testify to. Edmunds only became aware of his previous appearance in the play when she approached him to be in her production.
“I knew I wanted Tam to do it from day one,” she says. “I had no idea he'd done The Dance of Death before, but the first thing I ever saw when I came to Glasgow was him doing Irvine Welsh's Filth solo in the Citz's Stalls Studio, and that was quite an introduction. I also knew I wanted Lucianne and Andy to do it. Luke's music I knew already was going to be epic, and Graham's in full steam ahead mode and has gone for really lush costumes. All of that's great, because when you're tackling something that's been around a while, you need people around who can punch big and think big.”
That Edmunds has managed to pull together such a crack squad is impressive in itself. To keep that team together while she and producer Susannah Armitage played the waiting game regarding funding is quite another.
When Edmunds found out on the last working day of the year before the Christmas break that the project's application had been successful, it was too late to be included in the Citz's season brochure. Miracles have been worked since in spreading the word, and Edmunds is clearly relishing the rapid-fire turnover of her production in a way that serves the play's extreme nature.
“It's really important to me that it doesn't feel domestic,” she says. “It's still set on an island, and it's still this couple adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean, but we've had to keep pushing ourselves.
“For me it feels like a cautionary tale. If you don't take care of your relationship, this is where it's going to end up, somewhere cruel and violent. It's an interesting interrogation of marriage, and how little things can become bigger things until they become something murderous. It's all about relationships, and is a big dark murmur at the world about how those relationships can go so horribly wrong.”
The Dance of Death, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until May 7.www.citz.co.uk