There’s something particularly appropriate about watching Passion Play the week the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was hotly debated in the House of Commons, with some (mostly Tory) MPs getting their Y-fronts in a twist over the ‘sanctity of marriage’, talking about it as if early man and woman had stood up from their four legs and joined themselves in holy matrimony dressed in their finest bear skins.
Marriage is, as the adulterous husband in Peter Nichols’ Passion Play points out to excuse his behaviour, a relatively modern invention. Marriage as a bond of love is an even more recent idea – it’s so new in fact that we humans still seem to be working it out. But it’s fun watching us try and at the very least the bumpy martial road has provided rich fodder for writers. The fallout of adultery is particularly ripe for playwrights so much so that back in the late 70s and early 80s three plays about the pain and betrayal of unfaithfulness debuted with Nichols’s Passion Play forming an unofficial adulterous trinity with Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.
Nichols’ characters, Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker) and Owen Teale’s James Croxley’s marriage is one of those outwardly perfect unions that hasn’t a chance of lasting beyond the first half. He’s an art restorer, she’s a classical music singer and teacher. They drink red wine, listen to Bach and pad about on their stripped-floorboards bare-footed pontificating into the early hours with their dead friend Albert’s young partner, Kate, a glamourpuss straight out of the writer’s books of femme fatales.
Kate is every married woman’s worst nightmare and a cliche of every man’s fantasy, all cleavage, heels and alluring curves with a penchant for older (married) men. She’s less a character and more a vessel for James’ fantasies and inadequacies, because, yes, he does go on to have what starts as a fling and later becomes an obsession with Kate, a woman who’s already destroyed Albert’s marriage to the still-bitter Agnes and who is hell-bent on getting her claws into her next victim, the at-first reluctant James.
Annabel Scholey plays Kate with relish, although the role is as slight as her silk dress. We never know Kate’s motivation in pursuing James – or her other affairs that take place off-stage. There’s something psychopathic in her lack of empathy towards those she hurts and lack of understanding to the pain she causes the people whose lives she destroys. Even James’ alter-ego Jim is baffled as to the attraction she claims to feel for him, the endgame for her seems to be less about the sex and more about the power to destroy.
The first half is an absorbing 60-minutes as I’ve seen this year. The story trots along merrily, the characters are, if not likable then good company, the script funny, the acting terrific. Zoë Wanamaker is a particularly captivating presence, inhabiting the tolerant yet strong Eleanor with such ease that the pain at her husband’s betrayal in the second half is even sharper.
Much has been made of director David Leveaux‘s device of giving the character’s alter-egos; Samantha Bond is Wanamaker’s shadow as Nell while Oliver Cotton as Jim is James’ more likable double. It’s a clever trick, allowing the characters, which are fairly cardboard cutout, added depth. The ‘split screen’ trick also adds to the pathos and urgency, with two scenes sharing a stage – Eleanor smugly telling Agnes that Kate’s not a threat to her marriage while Kate’s tongue is halfway down her husband’s throat. Dramatic irony in action.
The second half is darker, more suffocating and slips dangerously into hysterical territory towards the end. Wanamaker’s Eleanor is so eaten up by suspicion and jealousy that she shrinks before our eyes until she wants to disappear completely. James meanwhile grows into a stereotypical middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis, blustering half-apologies and retching up every excuse ever used by a man caught with his pants down to excuse his infatuation. He even does a good job convincing Eleanor of the absurdity of marriage. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d zoomed across the stage in a Lotus sportscar
As distressing as Eleanor’s decline into a woman crippled by the betrayal of a man she called ‘half her life’ is, the play is curiously cold, as stark as the Sunday supplement-style set. I felt like Eleanor did when listening to her friend Agnes’ bitter denouncements on her ex-husband and his new love Kate, sympathetic but unmoved. The ambiguous ending (which reminded me of the inconclusive final line from The Dollhouse’s) leaves Eleanor’s future uncertain, although I know which ending I’d rather she took.
Passion Play is more head than heart, which isn’t to say that it’s not, well, passionate. It’s fiery, punchy, at times almost overwhelming in its ferocity and thought-provoking. Just don’t go expecting a happily ever after.
by Suzanne Elliott
For tickets and more information, visit www.passionplaylondon.com.