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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 14th March 2003

Dance of Death / The Accidental Death of an Anarchist / The Safari Party

The Spectator - 15th March 2003

August Strindberg's Dance of Death is often described as a masterpiece, but if this new translation at the Lyric is anything to go by it's reputation is undeserved. (This may be the fault of the translator, American playwright Richard Greenberg.) Supposedly a timeless classic about a marriage turned sour, it has an exceedingly threadbare plot, the relationship between the husband and wife is more often described than dramatised and what it has to say about love and death struck me as rather hackneyed. Above all, it's extremely heavy going. In spite of Strindberg's occasional stab at humour, there's no real escape from his earnest, Scandinavian morbidity. If I hadn't popped into the Starbucks across the street during the interval I might well have fallen asleep in the second half.

On the plus side, this production does have one thing going for it: Ian McKellen. As the dying martinet who's been tyrannising his wife for 25 years, he's a very human monster, managing to be both loathsome and pitiable at the same time. Unfortunately, there's precious little chemistry between McKellen and Frances de la Tour as his bitter, angry wife. It may be a personal tic of mine, but I dislike the way this actress hurls herself around the stage, becoming more reckless as the character she's playing becomes more exposed. She's always a little too raw, a little too artless. I also found Owen Teale's performance as Kurt, the innocent bystander who's dragged on to witness this Punch and Judy show, rather irksome. He's ludicrously over the top, his Welsh accent getting stronger and stronger as the evening wears on.

In general, all three actors seem intent on investing the material with a power it doesn't really possess. I may have misread this production and, for all I know, the director, Sean Mathias, has instructed the performers to ham it up slightly as a way of underlining the kitschy, gothic quality of Strindberg's melodrama. But I suspect that everyone involved is in deadly earnest. The intense, over-emotional performances, the heavy-handed symbolism of the direction--these are just the ways that theatre folk respond when they think they're putting over high art. I may be wrong, but what comedy the evening possesses--and I don't mean Strindberg's "jokes"--seems wholly unintentional.

For all its shortcomings, though, Dance of Death isn't nearly as painful as The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Again, I find myself marvelling at the gap between a playwright's reputation and the quality of his work. Dario Fo, the Italian satirist responsible for this play, was actually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. If The Accidental Death of an Anarchist represents the pinnacle of Fo's achievements, there must be Nobel Prizes in the offing for Ray Cooney, Marie Jones and Ben Elton.

This is a new translation by Simon Nye, the man responsible for Men Behaving Badly, so some of the blame may rest with him. But even the weakest episode of Men Behaving Badly is much funnier than this play. The Accidental Death of an Anarchist is closely based on the story of a real life Italian political activist called Giuseppe Pinelli who died in police custody in 1969 and watching the details of that case being raked over is like reading one of those interminable articles in The New Yorker about some long-forgotten miscarriage of justice.

Dario Fo originally wrote The Accidental Death of an Anarchist to be performed by himself and it feels like an exercise in wish-fulfilment in which the playwright gets to outwit the duplicitous state officials who conspired to cover up the Anarchist's death. In this production, the author's part is taken by Rhys Ifans, the Welsh actor who played Hugh Grant's guileless flatmate in Notting Hill. I thought Ifans was the best thing in that film, but I found him impossible to watch here. He comes across as an egomaniacal show-off, refusing to let any of the other performers get a look in.

The Safari Party by Tim Firth isn't much better. The Hampstead Theatre's lavish new headquarters is supposed to be a forum for "new writing", but this hoary old satire wouldn't have been considered fresh 25 years ago. One way to describe this play would be "Ayckbourn Lite", something I wouldn't have though possible before now. (Ayckbourn directed this production.) The object of Firth's scorn is a vulgar, working class couple who've just moved to Cheshire in the hope of finding a bit of pastoral bliss. Apparently--and this may come as a bit of a shock--country folk aren't all simple-minded rustics! I know there are no hard-and-fast rules about who you can and can't make jokes about, but targeting a pair of uneducated proles seems a little on the snobbish side. I thought the object of satire was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Tim Firth seems to be in the business of afflicting the afflicted and--judging from how well this went down in Hampstead--comforting the comfortable. Still, what do I know? He'll probably be awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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