Force Majeure, a random act of God that cannot be predicted or measured that entirely disrupts planned activity, something we can all appreciate a little better in the past two years, certainly as force majeure has caused significant delay to Tim Price’s play of the same name. Originally scheduled for 2020, Covid struck again in late 2021 when the production was forced to close because company members tested positive and had to isolate, cancelling the show’s original Press Night. Returning to the stage between Christmas and New Year, not even a random act of God can save this slightly underwhelming production whose staging choices place spectacle over narrative purpose and audience engagement.
Based on a two hour movie by Ruben Östlund, the play Force Majeure brings across some interesting themes about human behaviour under extreme pressure and, in the wake of natural disasters, begins a philosophical debate about the ‘correct’ instinctual response when something goes unexpectedly wrong. When father of two Tomas abandons his family and is seen running away from an avalanche at an exclusive ski resort, it sets in motion a chain of events that affect his marriage and the opinion of his children and friends.
Across 2.5 hours, Force Majeure unpicks Tomas’s instinctive response and the consequences, mixing fraught family drama with this more abstract discussion of nature, the protective instinct and the ‘right’ response when making a split-second decision. So far, so interesting, but Price’s adaptation instead becomes overly repetitive with the central family having several versions of the same conversation with each other and then with their late-arriving pals who miss the main event. While we get a sense of Tomas’s actions as an emotional turning point that no one can let go, it makes for stodgy drama as the plot stalls with even a major pre-interval revelation leaving the audience wondering what could be left to say in the final hour.
Part of the problem is a series of short scenes that work fine in the cinema where quick cutaways create drive and direction but in the theatre require clunky scene changes to take the characters to new locations without developing the depth of perspective that makes you care about the individuals or properly pushes them to explore and justify their behaviours. In adapting the film, Price also takes each scene round in circles, having individuals say the same thing several times or carry on a particular joke a beat too long, making the plot feel overly laboured while sacrificing any serious development for the central family.
This static drama is very noticeable in the first half of the play where – aside from an energetic opener and the drama of the avalanche careering towards the trapped family – over an hour of subsequent talking is taken up almost exclusively by the question of whether father Tomas ran away from rather than seeking to protect his wife and kids. And the characters have multiple versions of the same discussion for the rest of the play – Tomas denying it and claiming Ebba’s perception of the event is misconstrued, Ebba equally adamant about what she saw. They talk about it as family, the couple argue about it when they are alone and they talk to strangers as well as friend Mats and his girlfriend Jenny, going over and over and over the same ground with neither yielding. By the time the interval arrives, it is increasingly difficult to care about this fractious family and their endless, somewhat stagey, arguments.
Price also begins Act Two in a similar fashion with Mats and new, much younger girlfriend Jenny debating the same issue as they take sides resulting in judgements about their own personalities. It is a scene intended to be comic as Mats agonises about the reflections on his character and late-night refusal to drop it and go to sleep. Their mutual exasperation is funny to a point but several minutes into the scene, the repeated scenario becomes tiresome, willing them to go to bed so we and the play (with another hour to run) can move on.
What we never get is a proper sense of why these people behave as they do and the pre-existing context that might make their reactions more explicable. Information is relatively basic, Tomas and Ebba’s marriage was already on the rocks, Mats had left his first wife and is now dating Jenny who is blithely and unquestioningly accepted despite being 20-years his junior, while Tomas and Ebba’s son implies some form of behavioural issue that requires careful management and intense parental attention, yet none of this is fully explored within the play and in asking the viewer to just accept the circumstances without deeper consideration misses an opportunity to ground the collective hysteria and avoidance of the truth in a much wider story about relationships, family and work pressure that has created a deep fissure waiting for almost any excuse to give way – the aftermath of the avalanche becoming a proxy for the true cause of and excuse for disharmony.
The single-issue focus of the story creates a feeling of dislocation between character and drama, so while Force Majeure builds to a moment of self-realisation and a consequential clearing of the decks, it is difficult to feel emotionally invested in the individuals in any meaningful way. That is partly a question of staging but also of tone, and Michael Longhurst is never quite sure if he is directing a comedy or a drama, eliciting laughs in some of the play’s more incisive moments. Like The Boss of It All and Another Round, Scandinavian dramas often have a particular blackly comic style that mixes irreverence with an oddball quality that allows a tragi-comic feel to emerge, and throughout Force Majeure there is a sense that a similar piece is trying to escape but the show is yet to find that balance, lost in the overwritten nature of the scenes and the slightly choppy drama that prevents any momentum from growing.
This is further exacerbated by the Donmar’s peculiar staging decision, building a ski slope that allows for a couple of very stylish moments as supporting cast members project themselves diagonally down the stage, but with the whole design facing forward, it loses opportunities to play to the wraparound-style auditorium particularly when the vast majority of scenes are based in bars, hotel rooms and cafes that are not on the mountain at all. The Donmar is a rare venue with no truly restricted views – there are side views in both the Stalls and Circle that sometimes put the audience’s eyeline behind the actors for a time, but all seats are close to the stage with clear, unobstructed sightlines.
So, in a venue with three sides and an apron stage, it seems ludicrous to build a piece of staging that creates quite severely restricted views for anyone sitting in the side Stalls (usually some of the best seats). Yet designer Jon Bausor has created a slope that increases in gradient towards the back of the stage meaning these audience members are unable to see the stage floor, can barely see the actors when they are sitting on the slope itself, often have views obscured by furniture or other actors blocking their colleagues and spend most of the action staring at the sides of a furry ramp. Only the straight-on Stalls seats will see a full view. Stylish it may be, memorable certainly and prices have been reduced accordingly but these choices do very little to enhance the experience of the play or particularly reflect its locations and context.
It is notable how often audience experience is sacrificed to design and directorial preference, and with the top critics usually given the most advantageous (and ergo most expensive) seats, the problems of restricted view seating has been given very little profile. In older theatre buildings, the curvature of the room and the existence of pillars just cannot be avoided, yet theatremakers rarely sit in these seats to watch their own show from these unusual angles – it might alter their choices if they did. Someone spending £10 on a ticket doesn’t love or understanding theatre any less that someone spending £70 nor do they necessarily prefer a vertiginous view of a far away story, it is an economic decision based on affordability and it shouldn’t mean their enjoyment or ability to see a show is any less worthy. Venues could do more to reasonably accommodate the known restrictions, for example by not setting too many scenes at the sides of the stage – particularly now when £70 may only get you a seat in the balcony in some places.
To purposefully create viewing limitations in an otherwise intimate theatre is baffling, and Force Majeure suffers from forcing a proscenium arch design that plays in only one direction into a three-sided auditorium that cuts visibility for a quarter of its audience. There is very little benefit to these staging choices and while the cross-ramp skiing is impressive and unusual, there must have been multiple other possibilities for a story set largely indoors. For once the Circle is probably the best place to see this production and even the £10 seats here will offer a superior experience to the side Stalls.
Among the performances, Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshall are always worth seeing and while their characters offer relatively little substance, the actors find the emotional depths of Ebba’s blind fury and disgust with her husband that Marshall subtly suggests gives her the excuse she needs to finally leave while Kinnear’s blank effrontery is both wounded and embarrassed, sometimes hiding a deeper purpose and half believing his own nonsense. Sule Rimi as Mats and the excellent Siena Kelly, fresh from her triumphant Maggie in ETT’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, add some much needed relief from the claustrophobic family drama, offering convincing depth in their comedy side roles.
Nonetheless, Force Majeure feels like a missed opportunity for a tighter, more philosophical drama about different forms of self-preservation in the face of natural disasters and how these are conditioned by the fears or phobias we carry around with us. We all wear masks everyday, desperate to hide our weaknesses and foibles from others, and it is only in these moments of great crisis that they fall away and a raw nature is revealed. That tight character study was the focus Force Majeure really needed and, in staging this play, remembering that the audience experience should matter, whatever you’ve paid for your ticket.
Force Majeure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog