In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.
Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?
Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.
And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.
There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.
Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.
Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.
In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion. Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.
With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.
Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.
Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.
Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.
From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.
The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.
Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.
Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.