REGARDED as Sweden’s national ‘renaissance man’ and modernist, with work spanning novels, poetry, painting and autobiography, it is as a playwright that August Strindberg is best known throughout the world.

Excitingly, an Oxford Playhouse co-production of a contemporary adaptation of one of his greatest plays is now on stage until Saturday, June 11, staring multi-award winning actress Lindsay Duncan.

The Dance of Death is a gripping observation of the darker side of marriage and relationships. Alice and Edgar are approaching their 30th wedding anniversary but, are locked in a bitter struggle with each other.

Their friends and children have been driven away by its toxicity but somehow their relationship is seemingly sustained by this mutual taunting and recrimination.

I spoke to Lindsay Duncan about working on this sombre sounding play.

“It is serious subject matter, but in fact is it also darkly funny,” she says.

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When I ask if Strindberg’s reputation as a rather misogynistic thinker influences her portrayal of Alice she demurs: “I think it is more that he was a troubled man. Geniuses often are.

“It is part of the process that spur them on to make great works of art, such as this. He has actually written Alice as smart and strong.”

Before he wrote this play in 1900, Strindberg had been married twice and was about to marry again. With plenty of first-hand material to draw upon from his first marriage to actress Siri Essen, The Dance of Death presents a not un-similar relationship. Duncan explains how this is works in the play.

“It’s a long marriage and this underpins what has happened to their relationship over such a long time,” she says.

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“They have strong feelings of isolation and disappointment.”

But she emphasises: “Strindberg’s take on this is also darkly funny not just serious.”

So, what is holding this marriage together? “They are locked in together and have such intimate knowledge of each other,” she explains.

“They have loved and needed each other for many years, and they still do.”

Clearly ahead of its time, The Dance of Death is a revolutionary take on marriage under Victorian values. I ask what it has to say to us today?

“Even though it is written within the attitudes of its time the genius of the play is that it can’t help breaking through those.

“This is what was there to be mined out in our new production, a contemporary adaptation by Academy Award-winning playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz.”

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Duncan is, of course, well known for playing strong, controversial, and independent women. Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Douglas in GBH, and super-agent Angela Wells in Spooks, fitted this mould perfectly. Likewise, the role of Marquise de Merteuil, which she created in the original stage production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

In a way there are some similarities between her and Alice. They have no conventional power.

Of course, the Marquise has money and social status and Alice has none, but they both have spirit. Fighting their way through a man’s world they are tremendous – but I also find it a powerful experience to play women who are broken by it.

Having worked across all these different acting mediums, I asked if she approached theatre differently?

“The rehearsal periods are longer and it develops into a much more collaborative process,” she says. “Once the days filming is done it’s in the can, but in the theatre things grow. You continually discover different things within great writing.”

Very pleased to be back in live theatre, Duncan thinks it’s an important step after the Covid restrictions. “Bringing back live performances will help us all come together to laugh, cry and tap into the experiences of great artists of the past,” she says.

“Sharing our feelings and thoughts, we can see how much pulls us all together – which is much more than what pulls us apart.”

The Dance of Death is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday, June 11.


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