On 21 February 1967, Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan opened in a production of August Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death at the Old Vic, directed by Glen Byam Shaw.
Strindberg’s darkly humorous play, written in 1900, originally in two parts, centres on the verbal battles between married couple Edgar and Alice, who live in a fortress on a remote island off the coast of Sweden. As Edgar, Olivier was acclaimed by the critics for his ferocious portrayal of the Captain who enjoys tormenting his wife, McEwan’s Alice. Robert Stephens played Kurt, Alice’s cousin, who finds himself in the middle of the couple’s vicious games. The play is credited as influencing future works, most notably Edward Albee’s creation of sparring couple George and Martha in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
This 1967 production was staged by the National Theatre, of which Olivier was Artistic Director. At the time, the NT, founded in 1963, was using the Old Vic as a temporary home until a permanent theatre was built on the South Bank, which eventually opened in 1976.
British actress McEwan, who was 35 at the time of this production, has enjoyed a long stage and screen career, appearing opposite Olivier on several other occasions, including Love For Love in 1965 (NT). Her more recent stage credits include Gertrude to Alan Rickman’s Hamlet at the Riverside Studios in 1992, Lady Wishfort in the Way Of The World at the National in 1995 with Roger Allam and Fiona Shaw, and Judith Bliss in Hay Fever at the Savoy in 1999. Since 2004 her face has been best known as Miss Marple. McEwan played Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth for three series on television.
Olivier and McEwan went on to recreate their roles in The Dance Of Death in a 1969 film of the play, directed by David Giles and also starring Robert Lang as Kurt, plus Janina Faye, Malcolm Reynolds, Jeanne Watts, Peter Penry-Jones and Barry James.
Later productions of Strindberg’s play in London have included Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in 1985 and Ian McKellen and de la Tour at the Lyric in 2003.