Going on holiday with your friends can be a difficult business; how do you cope when some of you want to lay on the beach for five days, while others want to see every historic site / market / cobbled backstreet your destination has to offer. The decision to share your few precious days of relaxation with other people can be the most stressful choice you ever make. Imagine how much more awkward that becomes if you strike up a friendship with people you meet abroad and can’t seem to shake for the rest of your trip. Akin to a holiday romance that goes sour, somehow these people just don’t get the hint and return with you, year after year to the same place.
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia deals with this dilemma but set against the backdrop of Greece’s changing political landscape of the 1960s and 70s. At heart, this is a play about betrayal and how the four main characters undertake acts of treachery partly against each other but primarily against the country they claim to love, its people and ultimately their own middle class notions of propriety. Charlotte and Theo are Brits renting a beautifully positioned but slightly rundown home in Greece. He’s a playwright and she’s an actress, here for the summer where Theo is enjoying a purple patch of creativity. Randomly in town they meet Harvey and June, an American couple with a shady side, she’s a bit of a bimbo, he’s a skilled manipulator, controlling all the events and people around him, but why? In the space of a decade the two couples meet for almost the first and last times, where the clash of morality leads to some uncomfortable self-realisation for the British pair.
The play itself is considerably less heavyweight than its promotion suggests and one that uses the 1967 military coup as a mere backdrop to explore the middle class angst of some holidaying interlopers. It’s not pure froth by any means and attempts to get to grips with the ways in which external forces have shaped the political, economic and cultural landscape of Greece, but its character-driven focus on the four people onstage (and it only really focuses on two of them properly) means the story of Greece and its people is driven into the background. Don’t be fooled by the serious-looking chronology on their website outlining the 20th Century history of Greece that implies this play will be a Captain Correlli’s Mandolin for the 70s (the book not the awful film), sadly the context is largely irrelevant and we’re left to draw meaning from the primary interaction of British and American protagonists instead.
This is absolutely Ben Miles’s play and he is having a particularly good run of form at the moment. Many among the theatre community will attest that his Cromwell was the equal of Mark Rylance, and also incredibly challenging given he had to perform both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in rep in Stratford, London and on Broadway, and while the shows themselves were a little lacklustre his performance was reason enough to go. Likewise he stole the show in the recent BBC Hollow Crown series with a devilish turn as Somerset intriguing at the court of Henry VI. Here he plays Harvey the insalubrious American who worms his way into the home and lives of the British couple. He has an undefined government role which gives him inside information on a forthcoming military coup, allowing him to make defining economic decisions for the group. For much of the early play Miles makes him an uncomfortable presence, somewhere between geniality and outright threat, we know he’s not all he seems but nothing about his bonhomie betrays any darker intentions. Is it just the awkwardness of a first meeting or is there something more calculating… the ambiguity is delightful.
In Act One Harvey is a man in total control, drop him into any situation and he will manipulate the players to behave as they should. It is his verve that talks his British hosts into buying the villa after sensing the desperation of the Greek owners who are emigrating to Australia for a better life. And knowing what’s coming, he secures the deal for a fraction of what it should be worth. But Act Two, set 10 years later gives him a chance to reveal a different side. Though not sympathetic, he is someone who thinks carefully about the decisions he’s making and checks their consequences – something the Brits fail to do for all their moralising about fairness and decency. Miles’s Harvey at least is honest about his approach to business and for all Charlotte’s disdain her well-meaning actions turn out to be the most thoughtless of all.
Staying with the Americans, Elizabeth McGovern plays Harvey’s wife June, essentially a bimbo who is the trophy by his side. Both spouses are chronically underwritten so we never really understand what attracts the sweet but rather empty-headed June to her secretive husband. And I have to confess to being somewhat perplexed by the casting of McGovern in this role. She’s a fine actress and does her best with it but throughout she betrays a greater intelligence than the character should actually have, one that ultimately makes no sense given her lack of decisive action at any point. McGovern’s June is likeable, sweet and later emits an interesting fear of her husband, but the underlying sense of intelligence McGovern brings to all her characters doesn’t quite accord with June’s actions or her decision to remain wilfully in the dark about Harvey’s true nature.
The British couple are equally frustrating; Pippa Nixon’s Charlotte is the moral guardian of the piece and its sensible centre. More than any other character, she oozes middle class respectability and guilt, showing great deference to the Greek owners of the house she’s renting, while openly watchful of Harvey’s threat to her own comfortable world. The text references an attraction between Harvey and Charlotte which doesn’t really exist in performance, but the scenes between Nixon and Miles as they battle for supremacy and the last word are the best in the production. What is frustrating about her as a character is that she feels like a cipher for the playwright’s own views on the external exploitation of Greece a lot of the time, but despite her evident mistrust of Harvey is very easily talked into buying the Villa Thalia without proper consideration. There is also a prissiness to her that makes her difficult to empathise with in Act Two, so when she’s forced to realise her less than blameless conduct it’s surprisingly satisfying to see her brought down a peg or two.
Her husband Theo (Sam Crane) has pretty much nothing to do apart from set the context for the couple being in Greece – for the creative inspiration – and to be the driving force behind buying the cheap house. Like June, Theo’s character needs more meat, particularly given the supposed attraction between his wife and Harvey which never comes between them, while the two Greek characters, a father and daughter, are little more than pen portraits of people in need, torn between a new life and preserving their historic legacy. Act Two also has two children who have little importance to the plot but the decision to give a pre-pubescent actress a bikini and put her stage brother in small trunks is a controversial and uncomfortable one. Neither of the adult women wears just a bikini and the men reveal no flesh at all, so having the children do it is unnecessary – it would be easy enough to imply swimming in other ways.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia is not an awful show by any means, and in many ways it’s an enjoyable night at the theatre. There’s nothing wrong with a lightweight play that tells a story about the drama between two sets of semi-strangers and offers some enjoyable performances, not least from Miles. But it doesn’t address the issues it claims to, and could have had considerably more depth by better situating the plot in the turbulence of recent Greek history, and by properly fleshing out the characterisation of the secondary players. Campbell’s play may make you think twice before befriending seemingly charming strangers abroad, but it’s not going to teach you much about modern Europe.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia is at the National Theatre until 4 August and tickets start at £15. It’s also part of the National’s Friday Rush promotion releasing £20 tickets for the week ahead at 1pm.