Theatre reviews: Dance of Death | Selkie

ON A tiny island that seems to be drifting away from the others in its archipelago, the retired Captain and his wife Alice are locked in conflict, as they have been throughout the 25 years of their marriage.

Tam Dean Burn as the Captain and Lucianne McEvoy as Alice in the reworking of Strindbergs play. Picture: Drew Farrell
Tam Dean Burn as the Captain and Lucianne McEvoy as Alice in the reworking of Strindbergs play. Picture: Drew Farrell

Dance Of Death | Rating: **** | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

Selkie | Rating: *** | Oran Mor, Glasgow

Sign up to our daily newsletter

He is an archetypal bullying patriarch much older than his wife, lustful, demanding, and incapable of accepting responsibility for any part of their marital discord; she gives as good as she gets, flaunting her physical elegance and beauty in his ruddy face, even as the pair of them stubbornly starve to death, the Captain having fallen out with their nearest neighbour the doctor, and everyone else who might have continued to deliver supplies.

This is Strindberg’s 1900 play Dance Of Death, in a superbly written new version by Glasgow playwright Frances Poet; and a fine, spare and vivid piece of theatre it makes, played out on a high transverse stage like an old wooden pier, in the confined space of the Citizens’ Circle Studio. Like almost all of Strindberg’s plays, Dance Of Death revolves around the idea of a life-or-death struggle between a man and a woman; but here, the drama is simplified to the point where the two seem absolutely evenly matched, with no home, goods or children left to argue over, and the result is both extreme and exhilarating.

Over the top as ever, Tam Dean Burn plays the whiskery patriarch with a leering, stylised physical force that somehow works, as a way of evoking the overweening male energy that his wife detests, but cannot resist; Lucianne McEvoy, as Alice, moves around the narrow stage like a flame-like streak of intense female energy, vividly beautiful in her deep aquamarine gown, superficially more rational, but fundamentally as obsessed with their fight-to-the-death as her husband. Andy Clark turns in a perfectly-pitched performance as their unexpected visitor Kurt, a helpless foil for their power-games, and witness to a duel so frighteningly single-minded that he finally takes to his boat and flees; and Candice Edmunds’s intensely physical and fluent production, with design by Graham McLaren and music by Luke Sutherland and Audrey Bizouerne, achieves a memorable poetic intensity, not easy to interpret in all its twisting depths, but impossible to ignore.

An island also features in this week’s Play, Pie And Pint show at Oran Mor; but this time, the story is not of a man and woman locked in equal combat, but of the idea of the Selkie, the perfect, loving and biddable seal-wife who would – at a cost – abandon the sea, and come to live with the kind of man who finds a real woman too frightening a partner. In this new three-handed drama by Kay Singh – this year’s winner of the David MacLennan Award for a new emerging playwright – the central character, Mac, is a young man living in a 16th floor city flat, and apparently on the point of ending it all with pills and vodka, when his spiritual guides appear in Japanese Noh Theatre masks, and take him back to the island where he grew up.

Once home, he encounters both his father – a solitary man of few words with little love for his son – and the spirit of his mother, a fragile soul who one day decided to “return to the sea”, like the selkies in the stories she loved. In the end, there’s at least a little opening-up between father and son, a hint of mental health problems that destroyed a once-loving marriage; then Mac returns to his flat, where nothing much seems to have changed. It’s a short play, in other words, and its use of masks alongside naturalistic dialogue represents a risk; but Ross Mann’s lovely, nuanced central performance as Mac holds this wistful narrative together, in a promising Oran Mor debut for Kay Singh, deftly directed by Caitlin Skinner through the choppy waters of two very different theatrical styles.

• Both shows, final performances on Saturday