Sunday, 10 February 2019

Theatre Review: August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Classic Stage Company, NYC

A couple, Edgar and Alice, approach their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in a marriage based on mutual hatred and co-dependency in August Strindberg’s bleak 1900 play, The Dance of Death.

Physically and socially isolated (they live on a secluded island and dislike their neighbours, Edgar’s colleagues in the Swedish military), the monotony of their constant bickering is broken by the arrival of a figure from their pasts—Alice’s cousin Kurt.

Soon one dysfunctional relationship becomes three as the trio’s jibes grow crueller and the stakes for all higher.

Richard Topol, Cassie Beck and Christopher Innver in the CSC's production
The Classic Stage Company’s production makes use of Strindberg’s first version of the play, with Cassie Beck as Alice, Christopher Innver as Kurt and Richard Topol as Edgar. The staging is in the round, with just enough props to suggest the period setting. But the subject matter feels modern—Kurt’s child custody issues are relatable and the married pair is reminiscent of many unhappy couples today.

Memorable moments include Alice’s sporadic playing on the piano—mimed here, with the music coming from offstage, a ghostly and strangely fitting, if practical, choice—and her husband’s sabre dance (the dance of the title, since his wife hopes more than once that the exercise will cause him to have a heart attack). It’s hard not to think of Strindberg’s rival Henrik Ibsen and Nora’s desperate tarantella in The Doll’s House (1879) as Topol veers about the stage, kicking the air.

The three actors do a good job sustaining energy in a tense and emotionally taxing performance, although Beck arguably has a less sympathetic character to work with than the men. I left feeling dramatic satisfaction at the cyclical conclusion of the play, relief at escaping the claustrophobic home of the central pair and fear at the confining nature of marriage—all very Strinbergian.

Do you know of any other plays the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Ill Will, Michael Stewart (2018)

Heathcliff is half of one of the most famous couples in nineteenth-century literature, yet he’s absent for a significant portion of Emily Bronte’s 1847 Wuthering Heights, a novel that’s inspired a myriad adaptations and retellings. What happened to Heathcliff to transform him from a brutish orphan into a calculating villain? Where did he come by the wealth that catapults him to a higher social position from which he could wreak his revenge?

Michael Stewart takes on these questions and more in his 2018 novel Ill Will, subtitled ‘The Untold Story of Heathcliff’. The result is a novel that’s, crucially, true to the spirit of Wuthering Heights, as it fills in the gaps in the original narrative. The coarseness of Emily Bronte’s characters, the violence of their actions and the immediacy of her language set her apart from her peers. Michael Stewart’s novel would have been unwritable in the 1840s and still shocks today, with graphic depictions of assault and murder and curse words that may put some readers off, especially in the mouth of the key supporting character—a prepubescent girl.

Stewart’s Heathcliff sets off on foot from Wuthering Heights to Manchester and then Liverpool, in search of his origins (and enough food, money and shelter to survive). But the journey is fraught with dangers—highwaymen, unrest among the labouring classes, the dark anger towards Cathy, Hindley and Linton that he feels inside.

Michael Stewart
Michael Stewart literally walked the walk in doing his research (recreating Heathcliff and Mr Earnshaw’s pilgrimage) and it shows. He renders the Northern English landscapes, urban and pastoral, in bleak and exquisite detail, sometimes losing himself a little too much in his catalogue of British birds and horticulture (there’s only so many times you can read the word ‘peewit’ in succession!).

The plot will also delight students and scholars of the Victorian period. Years of debate—about Heathcliff’s race, for instance, and the quasi-incestuous nature of his relationship with Cathy—are explored. In fact John Sutherland’s wonderful essay, ‘Is Heathcliff a murderer?’, was the catalyst for the novel’s creation.

Less successful, perhaps, are the passages where the genre borders on mystery, with Heathcliff and his youthful companion, aptly named Emily, interviewing a series of unsavoury characters to work out our anti-hero’s lineage. While sly nods to the Bronte siblings’ real lives in the names of places and people are a clever touch, the conceit feels a little too early twentieth-century detective fiction. The novel recovers once we’re back to bloody fights and living in the wild.

Ill Will is a Gothic tale conceived in the twenty-first century, set in the eighteenth and based on a nineteenth-century masterpiece. If you’re looking for the Heathcliff of costume dramas, or like your historical fiction to be decorous and well mannered, you may be disappointed. But something tells me Emily Bronte herself would have approved.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Quiz: Which lesser-read Victorian novel should you read next?