The Dance of Death – Judy Davis draws the Kierkegaard out of Strindberg. (Theatre Review)

The Dance of Death

Belvoir Theatre

10 November to 23 December

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Lisa Tomasetti

Just as great Norwegian artists of the late nineteenth century (Ibsen, Jornson and Munch) were deeply influenced by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, so we see his breath all over August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. Manifest as a literal translation by May-Brit Akerholt and directed with a nod toward the writers’ intent by Judy Davis in this Belvoir interpretation, the play becomes less about a marriage trapped in a modern condition (as Edward Albee’s Americanised remake implies) and more about a despair that is conscious of being a despair. For Kierkegaard, being conscious of one’s despair is the same as to be conscious of being a self with something eternal inside and yet still have a misrelation within the self. Therefore, despair divides into two primary categories: Being conscious of having a self and a correlating despair at not willing to be oneself; and second, being conscious of having a self and in despair while willing to be oneself. To be in despair and not to call forth this self is to despair in weakness.[1] It is this weak, flaccid despair August Strindberg (and through him Judy Davis) wants us to see. What Kierkegaard calls the only true immorality – the refusal of self-reflection.  The horror of Edgar and Alice’s life ascribed in their lack of self is reflected in the presence of each other – yet they are perpetually condemned to call forth that self or despair in their repugnant weakness. Each must convince the other of being the self-tied to the eternal. To leave is to concede to the image of self they refute, that the other reinforces. And so, they are trapped in a dance until death.


Edgar (Colin Friels) falls easily under the descriptor (anti) Byronic hero as analysed by Kierkegaard in part two of ‘Either/Or’ (1843) under the title “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage” where Byron’s famous quote “Love is heaven and Marriage is hell” is reviewed. August Strindberg writes his Byronic Edgar as a man of immediacy who needs an instant connection with ‘the other’ and has only the illusory appearance of anything eternal. It is in the reflection of his wife (and at times Kurt) that he ‘exists’ being bound up with her in desiring craving, enjoying etc. He has a sense of himself and his state of despair. He seeks the event that will strike the blow that forces self-reflection; his own death. Colin Friels (dressed up as Strindberg himself) offers us an Edgar who is perpetually playing dead. Yet, as the title reminds us, and Judy Davis would have us see, movement and repetition are as important for August Strindberg as despair. She has this dead couple in perpetual, even comedic motion. It’s an important absurdity Judy Davis intuitively understands. The irony in despair which evolved as a kind of event has now become permanent: ironic ‘repetition’ has been reversed into its own ‘reversed mirror-image.’ As the enormous image of his wife, always looming demands to be torn asunder, equally it requires restitution to save him from a salvation he dreads.

Edgar’s perfect mirror is Alice (Pamela Rabe) who shows her ethical commitment (or lack thereof) in her existence. For Kierkegaard self-knowledge is the kind of knowledge which is required to become an ethical being. The ignorance which causes vice and immorality is not ignorance of moral principles or laws, but an ignorance of one’s own self. She too seeks Edgar’s death, but it is out of the weakest of all motives; to properly compensate her for a life of “sacrifice.” Virtue cannot be taught because it is not a doctrine or a subject matter, but it is a “being-able, an exercising, an existing, an existential transformation.”[2] To act in ignorance of the self is to open oneself up to injustice and immorality. If Alice is not a great actress, then her sacrifice and her subsequent hardship at the hand of Edgar is nothing. For her, the looming image of her past, decayed success is both talisman and servant for her own vampiric refusal to self-reflect and transform.

Here the seducer (August Strindberg perhaps?) invokes the literary image of a vampire, always alert with a sleepless eye. For Kierkegaard this creature lives in a kingdom of mist … continually seeking their prey. While Edgar sleeps in a strange awake state (fearful of dying) it is Kurt (Toby Schmitz) who will be shocked by a vampiric despair gripping him as he bites into the neck of the already despair-ridden Alice. To yield to the irrational aspects of the self is precisely the way to lose rational self-control, to lose the possibility of becoming an integrated self, fully functioning, autonomous and ethically alive in the world.

The Dance of Death is a story of a marriage but it is not the story of marriage, even though it shocks us to notice it represents so many marriages. For Judy Davis and her cast and creatives, this marriage is a source of desire and fascination, a looming there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I fascination tinged with a manic lust that occurs as fecund. Brian Thomson’s set is festooned with meat hooks that evoke a disarming erotic fervor while gently swinging at key points of the play. Matthew Scott’s lighting and Paul Charlier’s sound reverberate around the set and force a connective extension into the audience. Brian Thomson’s round set manages to drag all of us onto that small island. A horror-gothic vibe replaces excessive gore completely. It would miss Strindberg’s deliciously ephemeral point to imagine this couple might actually kill each other. Rather Judy Davis awakes in us the same magnetic appeal Kurt feels, that aesthetic sense something real may be happening, simply because convention has been stripped or is rotted away. Above all else Judy Davis’ Edgar and Alice are exaggerated, ridiculous and absurd. It is inside this, that the real horror lies.

The Dance of Death is a thrilling presentation of an important master work and easily one of the best plays you will see in Sydney in 2018.

[1] The Sickness unto death: Søren Kierkegaard’s categories of despair Michael A. Harsh University of Nebraska at Omaha – P36

[2] E. Hong and H. Hong, trans. and eds., Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers (Bloomington, Ind., & London, 1967), 1:463