Monthly Archives: February 2022

The Woods-Southwark Playhouse

In the same month two plays have opened in London both 90-minutes long and both using the same analogy for the knotty complexities of love and relationships with both culminating in some form of male violence. But while the world premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Forest at Hampstead Theatre used its allegorical title well, capturing the sudden density of circumstances as protagonist Pierre becomes increasingly lost in the mess he may have created, Southwark Playhouse’s revival of David Mamet’s The Woods only ever skims across the surface of characters Ruth and Nick in a talky drama that fails to say very much.

Written in 1977, the play received a mauling when it opened in New York a couple of years later and during the 1980s further performances were banned by the writer. It hasn’t been seen in the UK for over 20-years and it seems a curious decision to revive it now despite its attempts to engage with notions of sexual politics and the desire for a cleaner, simpler country lifestyle that many craved during the pandemic. Yet, The Woods feels decidedly old-fashioned in style and structure, using its characters as ciphers for Mamet’s abstract conclusions about relationships between men and women.

Mamet’s very best work focuses entirely on masculinity and the sometimes toxic competitiveness that exists between them particularly in capitalist environments. Glengarry Glen Ross remains a modern classic with a West End revival and tour directed by Sam Yates reminding us what a crisp and skewering writer Mamet could be. Similarly a 2015 production of American Buffalo with Damian Lewis and John Goodman was equally insightful about the egotism of men in a small junk shop grappling with their need for space and recognition. But Mamet has been on far shakier ground with female characters some of whose depictions have been laced with misogyny – the tasteless comedy of Bitter Wheat a case in point.

The Woods is a puzzling piece, naturalistic in setting but frustratingly elusive in purpose with thinly drawn characters who talk in bold phrases but never reveal a single personal thing about themselves or their lives, making it hard to believe in them as real people and even harder to care about a single thing they say or do. Ostensibly an Adam and Eve metaphor, Ruth and Nick are taken on a troubling path through the story, a relationship deteriorating in microcosm in the space of one night.

Mamet greatly admired and even wrote to Harold Pinter so throughout The Woods you can see Mamet feeling for that same kind of abstracted otherness, trying to reach a similar place where reality shifts very slightly to create a heightened intensity where ominous overtones of threat or danger shape the plot. That Mamet doesn’t get anywhere near the tonal precision and linguistic specificity of Pinter is the great tragedy of The Woods and make it an unsatisfactory experience.

Part of the issue is the very literal staging the story demands, set on the porch of a cabin in a very visible, tangible wood. It creates the feel for nature that peppers the text, referencing various creatures the couple see but unlike Zeller’s treeless The Forest designed by Anna Fleischle, Mamet’s play in comparison feels too heavy-handed, hammering home the metaphor of relationships being like a forest by setting the story in a real wood. A more representative hinterland could have drawn out those Pinter-esque tonal shifts but even in Russell Bolam’s new production for the Southwark Playhouse, Anthony Lamble’s otherwise pleasant log shack feels far too literal for the unnatural dialogue.

Mamet gives us nothing at all to go on when it comes to introducing Ruth and Nick to the audience; we learn little about them as individuals, not how long they have been together, what either of them do in the mythical ‘city’ they refer to or how they met. They never mention friends they have in common, they have no hobbies or interests other than going for walks, sex or holding each other, suggestions which recur throughout the play, and the factual basis for their existence is entirely withheld, leaving the audience to form an understanding of who they are only from the things they say.

However, both characters talk in repetitively bland, almost entirely meaningless phrases about the difficulties of self-knowledge, proclamations about how ‘clean’ the air is in the country, the cawing of gulls and vagaries about their feelings for one another. The first Act primarily establishes their seemingly unequal love and investment in their relationship, an emotional connection that is almost constantly spoken about by Ruth who spends much of this initial scene reassuring Nick of his sexual allure, skittering between stories connected to the woods including a Martian visit and war service and Ruth’s constant, almost possessive need to touch Nick.

There are hints, even here, that Nick is stereotypically afraid of commitment, not recoiling from Ruth but detached and less willing to discuss his feelings or even finding any obvious enjoyment in being at his cabin with her. By Act Two set late the same night, that frustration has expanded as a somewhat laboured, storm approaches which reveals Nick’s fear, resulting in what seems to be a clear sexual assault although this is not how Ruth reacts to it. With an ensuing conversation about other partners that Nick has brought to the cabin, Mamet treads a gendered line in which his archetypal male protagonist either wants sex or to be left in peace while his female avatar talks of love and commitment while actively encouraging the sexual bravura of her partner, even reassuring him after he attacks her.

The result is a confusing piece that builds to moments of violence which it is then overly casual about. Ruth fights back and threatens to leave, even going so far as packing her bags, but Mamet makes this feel part of the game, the audience and the central couple knowing that there is more to come and drastically undermining her surface decisiveness. But there is nothing underneath and The Woods feels like a series of empty gestures that offer-up a plot of sorts with no emotional basis for either character’s behaviour or as a way to demarcate the power shifts that happen along the way, leaving the once strong and silent Nick strangely infantilised. How and why is rooted in morning-after guilt but there is so little credibility in the picture Mamet has painted that the audience cannot grasp why the fate of these characters, shackled together for a brutal eternity in the woods, is a symbol of whatever point Mamet is making about relationships. And given his recent comments in The Guardian that the natural urge in men is for sex and in women to have babies, this is not a particularly nuanced understanding of gender.

Bolam’s production for Southwark Playhouse doesn’t really resolve any of these ambiguities or issues within the text and suffers as a result. There is an attempt to give Ruth greater agency and control of her body than the play allows through moments of reaction and a firmer, more controlled tone to her speeches, but despite flashes of intensity between the warring pair, the play’s shortcomings cannot be concealed. It is a small, intimate space that should be filled with the play’s emotional contortions but lacking those Bolam uses the porch front and small area of garden to move the actors around as much as possible, making dizzying use of the space as they march infeasibly from bench to tree stump to cabin trying to inject some physical energy into a lacklustre debate.

There is notably very little music even between scenes, only soundscaping designed Ali Taie who provides woodland sounds and some low thrumming in the blackouts between the Acts. However, with so little atmosphere in Mamet’s text, the prudent use of composition might have been helpful in setting the scene or representing the darkening tone as the mood shifts, and it seems a shame not to have used more sound, even thunder to match Bethany Gupwell’s lightening, to lift the piece and it give it a bit of drive.

Francesca Carpanini does what she can with Ruth and probably has the best of it in terms of giving the character what little purpose exists for her in the script. And although the cadence of her American accent means the delivery becomes a little samey, Ruth moves from being annoyingly affectionate, overly tactile and almost smothering to a more forceful partner unwilling to easily concede to Nick’s demanding behaviour. Carpanini gives Ruth as much emotional complexity as she can given the two-dimensional characterisation but it becomes increasingly interesting to watch her transition from romantic idyll to grubby brawl as the story moves on.

Sam Frenchum has almost no room for manoeuvre with Nick who becomes increasingly less sympathetic. There are lots of loose ends that Mamet never resolves including a recurring dream about a bear, trouble sleeping and a seemingly equal distaste for town and country that plague Nick, nor are there any explanations or remorse for his acts of aggression that violate his girlfriend so Frenchum has an uphill battle to keep the audience interested in Nick for 90-minutes. He does and that is to Frenchum’s credit but its a thankless task.

There are plenty of plays that chart the rapid decline of romantic and other relationships in just a few hours and many of them like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage do it much better than The Woods. Advertised as a ‘battle of the sexes’ play, it’s not nearly as light or as entertaining as that phrase suggests. With stylised dialogue, questionable gender politics and a too literal setting, The Woods gets rather lost in itself, and with very few contemporary insights to offer, it’s a wonder that Mamet’s duologue has been revived at all.

The Woods is at the Southwark Playhouse until 26 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Henry V – Donmar Warehouse

Henry V is the greatest war play ever written and is the template for all literary responses to conflict since produced. It is the perfect mix of diplomacy gone wrong, of kings and princes vying for conquest, of the burden of leadership and the price of betray. Shakespeare’s play is an exploration of causes and consequences of war, of heritage and dynasty, of honour and glory in the field while being honest about the violence and havoc it causes to civilians, their homes and the landscape. But most of all, Henry V is a play about how war affects all social classes within the army, from the fears and questions of conscience that afflict the boys and private soldiers at the bottom through the commanders and to the man who made it all happen who in one person represents both the terrible and the human face of war.

And its influence is inestimable. It is impossible to avoid the direct connection between Wilfred Owen’s vivid descriptions expressed in the evocative vocabulary of damage and destruction in his First World War poetry and the haunting scene-setting of the Chorus on the night before Agincourt as the ‘creeping murmur and the pouring dark’ descend like a cloak of gloomy anticipation over the English soldiers. And that opportunity to contemplate the soul as men await the terrible events ahead, common to the representation of conflict in popular culture, begins with Henry V and that all-too-recognisable concern about a just war.

Max Webster’s new production for the Donmar Warehouse, set in modern dress, understands the wide-ranging themes of Shakespeare’s play and, across a very swift three hours, triumphantly balances the unstoppable march to war with character development and some of the playwright’s richest verses filled with potent symbolism and stark imagery. Staged on tiered golden steps that become increasingly tarnished by the bloody business of fighting, Webster’s show is a powerful experience, filling the gaps between Shakespeare’s words by providing just enough context to bring the play to life and on the audiences’ ‘imaginary forces work.’

It opens with lights up as Millicent Wong’s Chorus beseeches the viewer to suspend their disbelief and pretend events are really happening before us, a feat that proves easy to achieve as Webster’s production ensues with a thriller-like pace which barely slackens. The first piece of context comes almost immediately with the addition of a scene from Henry IV – Part II in which the drunken Prince Hal carouses with his friends at a nightclub before hearing of the death of his father and leaving his lowly pals for good. It’s a trick Kenneth Branagh employed in his 1989 film version to quickly provide backstory in what is here a standalone play, allowing anyone unfamiliar with the earlier works to instantly understand some of the decisions the new King Henry V will shortly make about his former compatriots.

Important innovations include the decision to play all of the court scenes where no English characters are present in French with subtitle boards providing a translation. It is an insightful choice, one the really underlines the ‘otherness’ of the enemy here while bringing extra credibility to the scenes in which Catherine learns English – during a boxercise session – and in which the awkward lovers attempt to communicate in the broken phraseology of each other’s native tongue. Andrew T. Mackay’s choral and operatic score is also superbly atmospheric and integral to the story, working with the modern conflict design to make it feel as epic and grandiose as Shakespeare’s text while also providing a haunting bass note that opens up the emotional impact of the battle scenes.

Webster also makes swift work of the complex speech in which Jude Akuwudike’s Bishop explains the Salic law that validates Henry’s claim to France. Presented as a (slightly fancier) PowerPoint presentation, this crucial contextual information that justifies military action is shown in family trees and maps that skip along without weighing down the energy of this early part of the play. The extent to which the King of England is right is immediately muddied by the entrance of the Dauphin’s messenger with the infamous tennis balls and, clearly here in the Donmar’s production, Henry’s perhaps impetuous decision-making haunts him and his army for the rest of the play.

Shakespeare largely sets battle scenes off stage so how much time should be given over to recreating some of that action can be difficult for a production to pitch. Here, Webster’s choices emerge from a close reading of the text and the sequence of events within the two major confrontations with French forces. Shakespeare puts the audience in the middle of the action at Harfleur as Henry whips his men into a frenzy as they advance ‘once more unto the breech’. Fly Davis creates a gantry that lowers into place amid the frenzy of smoke, low light and bodies pouring through a gap in the rear wall to emphasise this key moment in which the newly inspired English regroup. But Webster retains most of the impact of these techniques for Agincourt itself and a longer sequence of warplay.

Shakespeare structures this pivotal battle in waves of action interspersed with discussions and discoveries that tell the audience how the fighting unfolds, creating greater drama and suspense as the audience wait to see who will win. Benoit Swan Pouffer creates some tight but evocative movement pieces as actors dressed in flak jackets with guns move in formations around the space to indicate the different stages of the chaotic and immersive battle. It never looks like dance but it is precisely coordinated, reinforcing the prestige of the English tactics in the creation of a distinctly stylistic but nonetheless physical encounter between the opponents.

Scene setting established, Webster’s greatest achievement is to fully excavate the complex and changing dimensions of the King’s character, and while earlier interpretations may have emphasised his unimpeachable glory and heroism, Webster’s show mines Shakespeare’s actually rather ambiguous hero to create a far more satisfying and ultimately tarnished novice monarch desperately trying to assume a mantle of kingship that fits perhaps more easily than he would like to admit.

The character of Henry and his true motivation is one of the play’s biggest mysteries. We fully believe he has thrown-off his youthful ardour for a more sober, responsible form of kingship yet Shakespeare presents a protagonist whose moral compass allows him to be deeply merciful when he needs to be but also phenomenally cold, even cruel when required. At Harfleur he talks the governor into surrendering by threatening rape and pillage if the town fails to concede, passing the fault and blame for that course of action onto the Frenchman. Later, he swiftly calls for the brutal death of an old friend accused of stealing, insisting on a contrasting moral code in which civilians and their property should remain unharmed. Is Henry willing to carry out his threats or, is he merely posturing and politicking for effect – and is either a credible quality?

We see the same swift sense of justice when he discovers the murder of the boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – an act that defies the protocols of war – prompting a shocking response that even his own men argue is not only ethically wrong but disproportionate. His subsequent ‘rough wooing’ of Princess Catherine is equally ambiguous, taking on a demanding entitlement which begins as inept soldierly love but becomes something far more toxic. Suddenly, Henry’s response to the disrespectful gift of tennis balls in Act One that questions his kingship may not be quite so clear cut. Is he a merciful or merciless man or something in between.

Unlike other Shakespearean protagonists, crucially, Henry is given almost no opportunity to account for himself or commune with his soul alone on stage. For three acts, the audience sees Henry only in the company of others or by their report, so while Hamlet and even the murderous Macbeth have unpacked their hearts and troubles over and over by the equivalent points in their own stories, Henry has been remarkably silent. Only on the eve of Agincourt is he given one lone soliloquy in which to explore his conscience and reflect on what it means to be a man and the burden of kingship when so many lives rest entirely in his hands. And even here, Shakespeare has primed the audience to once again question the legitimacy of his war through one of the private soldiers he speaks to before this singular moment of self-reflection. The next time we see Henry, he delivers the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech and he never considers his actions again.

Forget Jon Snow or his earlier theatre work because this is easily Kit Harrington’s finest career performance on stage or screen with a deep and nuanced understanding of these complexities in Henry’s personality and presentation. Harrington is an incredibly controlled Henry (and certainly Harry no longer), calmly and coldly appraising situations before striking a fatal blow with a quiet but distinct menace. There is a deep rage in this Henry that is largely held in check yet in delivering the political speeches and negotiations with the French messenger, with the unseen Governor of Harfleur and even with Catherine, Harrington has a panther-like vocal style, a slow, directed speech pattern that is fluently conversational with the verse while finding all of the imagery and beauty in the text. He delivers demands initially as pleasant and reasoned requests before becoming short-tempered, building to a firmer, formidable insistence in even love.

As a character, Henry appears only in moments across the first three Acts and Harrington is a commanding presence both in the battle scenes where he delivers all the famous speeches with just the right degree of rousing purpose and in political discussions where he seems quite at ease with his public decision-making authority. Yet, Harrington gives his Henry greater depth, the odd look that suggests he is a man struggling with the precepts of duty and responsibility, deeply concerned about his religious and social obligations and wanting to be seen to do the right thing even as he must subdue flickers of personal pain. Delivering that one truly introspective speech, Harrington is extremely good, holding the room entirely alone for the first time and showing his Henry as a man evolving, almost building a carapace around himself as the story unfolds, so while he may feel as keenly as an ordinary citizen, the experience of war and the needs of ceremony harden him forever.

The small supporting cast is very fine playing multiple bilingual gender-blind roles with distinction and providing the soundtrack. Akuwudike is a grand French King eventually humbled by defeat while Oliver Huband is excellent as his entirely objectionable and swaggering Dauphin. Anoushka Lucas gives Catherine more purpose and depth than often seen, while Danny Kirran as Pistol, Melissa Johns as Mistress Quickly, Claire-Louise Cauldwell as Bardolph and Steven Meo as Fluellen make the comedy characters far more integral to the singular direction of the story and less distracting than they can be.

More than a collection of electrifying speeches about Englishness (despite its Irish and Welsh characters in the army), this production really digs deep into Shakespeare’s beautiful verses to link the motivation for and experience of conflict to a very meaningful character study of a monarch we never quite read. A story of leadership and transformation, Henry V is the greatest of war plays and Max Webster’s production really does it justice.

Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse until 9 April with tickets from £10. The play will be broadcast via NT Live on 21 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Broken Wings – Charing Cross Theatre

A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.

Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.

In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.

And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.

The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.

And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.

Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.

There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.

But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.

And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.

Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.

But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.

The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.

Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.

Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.

Broken Wings is at Charing Cross Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Forest – Hampstead Theatre

The Forest - Hampstead Theatre

It has been an extraordinarily fruitful partnership between writer Florian Zeller and translator-playwright Christopher Hampton over the past few years with adaptations of Zeller’s disconnected family saga The Father, The Mother and The Son earning West End and Broadway transfers as well as film adaptations and an Oscar win for Antony Hopkins last year. Having picked through its archive for the theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations extended by the pandemic, it is easy to forget what a force Hampstead Theatre still is in the selection and staging of new work. While premieres have recently been limited to the downstairs space, Zeller’s new play The Forest blazes into the main house with an extraordinary piece about infidelity, guilt and distorted reality.

Zeller’s plays are often quite slippery, playing with notions of truth, memory and fantasy as the protagonist’s fractured perception of the world is presented to the audience in jumbled scenes that merge time and reality. The Forest is predicated on an allegory, the story of a handsome prince lured deep into a forest by a stag, the thrill of the hunt driving him on. Only, as the creature disappears into the undergrowth, the prince is now beyond his own limits and very much out of his depth. Around this Zeller builds a tricksy but brilliantly realised tale of a surgeon needing to end a year-long affair with a younger woman who suddenly becomes too demanding, threatening to hijack his otherwise perfect life, long marriage and high-profile job with government links.

The very masculine desire to hunt and chase regardless of the consequences or morality of a situation is Zeller’s subject, bringing with it a personal self-destruction played out across a variety of complex, interconnected scenes taking place in three distinct performance spaces. And within Zeller’s play, there are both vertical and horizontal strands moving against one another to dislocate what we see and what we know to be true, giving the subject matter both a straight-forward and illusory quality.

The first of these is the well-to-do, though not extravagant, home that Pierre, the surgeon, shares with his wife in what seems to be a single evening, although these moments are spread out across the play. Arriving home to find his daughter has discovered her partner’s infidelity in a parallel subplot, Pierre and his wife welcome friends for dinner and later interact alone around these external arrivals. In a second area, Pierre’s relationship with his lover plays out in a bedroom that seems to be in a hotel of some kind and these scenes take place across an unclear time period but somewhere towards the end of their liaison as their conversations become increasingly fractious and her behaviour more emotional until the dark consequences of their affair are revealed – or are they? The final office location is a multifunctional space where Pierre speaks to outsiders about the things he may or may not have done; sometimes this is a tangible place like his friend’s office but other times this is a more representative no man’s land – in the Pinteresque sense – and quite who Pierre is interacting with and the power they wield begins to shift.

Having introduced these demarcated zones, Zeller then works across them to transform what would have otherwise been a quite basic infidelity drama into something far more conceptual and the same time considerably more potent. Characteristic of Zeller’s plotting, what and who we see is entirely open to debate and across this 90-minute piece, both Pierre as a character and the sequence of events are presented in quite different ways. Initially we see what appear to be two different men, one at home with his wife and, in a subsequent scene, another in bed with his mistress. As the second man dresses, it becomes apparent that they are connected by the exactly the same suit and distinct emerald tie, presenting the audience with one character in two guises.

This approach fills the rest of the play with both versions of Pierre appearing in scenes with the other characters, although notably not in the central domestic space in which Pierre 2 has only one late scene with his wife. Outside of this area, the two are interchangeable, leading us to question whether they are indeed the same man in parallel universes treading the same path in marginally different ways with the same outcome; are they instead two versions of the same man from within Pierre’s own consciousness – one the man he thinks he is and the other the version the world sees or is this a dreamscape in which Pierre 2 takes on the qualities of the dreamer as a not-quite-the-same-but-still-recognisable projection of himself, just as rooms may look different in dreams but you know them. Perhaps Zeller is suggesting a darker perspective, a duel personality where the proxy can do terrible things unrealised by the original or maybe one is the Prince of the forest allegory and the other the fatally flawed human reality. Whatever the answer, it is fascinating to explore and shakes up the deceptive simplicity of Zeller’s plot.

And yet the playwright is still not done with us and into the mix we get a number of repeated scenes that show us events from a different perspective, partly recasting what we have already seen by showing it again in the light of the knowledge we now have, but simultaneously moving the story along with additional information and insights that incrementally open up what really happened between Pierre and his lover. In these moments, Zeller doesn’t repeat dialogue exactly but there are snatches of conversation in the set scenario that tell us this is the same instance we have already seen that will end in the same place with some of the same words exchanged, yet the outcome is greater revelation.

Like the parallel Pierres to which this replay is connected, why becomes vital to unpicking the psychological construction of the story and into whose mind the audience is taken. Zeller leaves us to determine what is real and what may be a nightmare vision. Is Pierre a guilty man plagued by conscience and reliving terrible memories as a punishment for his actions or are the events of the play entirely in his mind, a projection of the problems in his daughter’s relationship manifested or hallucinated due to the stress of the important report Pierre had been working on for several weeks – the same time period when the final pressured days of the affair are supposed to have taken place. There is a key moment, so small you could almost lose it; early on Pierre’s son-in-law is said to have had an affair with a singer which is a profession that Pierre’s lover later claims for herself in a throwaway comment, so have these events overlapped or is it just a coincidence? Has Pierre done anything wrong or is mental surety crumbling under the pressure?

Thematically, Zeller’s approach draws on Pinter particularly in presenting an overlapping domestic and non-space dimension within the play where power and control slips away from the male protagonist and rests entirely in the hands of the women who surround him. In another casual revelation, Pierre’s wife is said to have funded his clinic which adds a different dimension to their marriage and his refusal to end it. Likewise, his lover’s continual threats and increasingly unstable behaviour become a challenge to Pierre’s status as an eminent surgeon and family man and it is her power, as well as the threat of his wife’s fury, that emasculates him and not only prevents Pierre from making a decision but it is something he actively hides from. Although the female characters are largely muted, there is quiet dignity and power in them; Pierre’s daughter leaves her unfaithful partner in all versions of their relationship and it is implied that his wife would leave him if she knew Pierre was cheating on her or at least if the affair was openly acknowledged. And it is his lover who holds Pierre’s future and possibly even his sanity in the palm of her hand while the man himself is powerlessly buffeted between these women.

Played by Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, Pierre is a complex and inconsistent creation. Stephens’s interpretation, who appears first and dominates the domestic space, is charming and believable as a powerful establishment figure but far more emotional, permanently on edge and watchful in case he slips up. Across the play, Stephens’s version begins to tear at himself, increasingly unable to hold his life together and struggling to bear the weight of his actions, or at least what he thinks he has done, opening up particularly to the friend he eventually confides in and the unnamed third man who may be a policeman, a therapist or some transcendental representative of Pierre’s conscience. Stephens is compelling as a man losing his grip on reality and lost in the forest, especially in a poignant speech about mask wearing, yet with a sharper tone on occasion, it is still believable that he may have gone too far.

McGann by contrast is a far darker presence from the start and the first Pierre we see with his lover. There is something aloof, even uncaring about him even in this first scene as he hastily gets dressed. Later, he is there when the outcomes of their relationship are discovered, a cool and unruffled figure, calmly accepting what he sees, even hinting at its necessity. McGann also suggests some frustration and fear in parallel conversations with Pierre’s friend but he remains a sinister figure, even a possible avenger as the two Pierres come face to face for a horrifying second.

For the play’s structure to work, it is essential that the female characters offer a steady state and Angel Coulby as the lover is entirely consistent in all scenarios, frustrated by the man she has been dating for so long and increasingly troubled by the distance he puts between them. Gina McKee on the surface has very little to do or say as Pierre’s wife yet she is the heart of the piece revealing so much about the life they share with just a flicker across her face. Without saying a word, we see she knows all too well what is happening in her marriage, choosing silence in the hope it will resolve itself but nonetheless deeply affected by the betrayal she experiences.

The Forest is beautifully staged by Director Jonathan Kent and the always inventive Designer Anna Fleischle who segments the stage into three irregularly-shaped boxes, moving the action inventively been the central stylish middle class living room, a multifunctional side office area and the heavily furnished bedroom placed on a platform above the stage, all places where versions of Pierre and his life exist side-by-side. Visually expressive and exciting to watch, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting brings each of these spaces to life momentarily – as Pierre says he can only give us moments – creating warmth, coldness and fear as the changing rhythms of the play both flow through and change the tone of these locations.

It really is such a fruitful partnership between Zeller and Hampton who has provided a effective and affecting translation of this play. The Forest still has a a week of previews before its official press night but is already compelling, puzzling and entirely engrossing. With new play Folk downstairs and now The Forest sure to earn further accolades, Hampstead Theatre has already produced two of the best new plays in 2022.

The Forest is at the Hampstead Theatre until 12 March with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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