Passion Play, The Duke of York, London

Passion Play, Duke of YorkThere’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.

The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The last Pinter play I saw was the star-studded Old Times as it neared the end of its critically-acclaimed run at the theatre named after him earlier this year. It was classic Pinter, all pregnant pauses, non-sequiturs, ambiguous relationships and more unanswered questions than the average episode of The Weakest Link.

In contrast, The Hothouse, the second of Jamie Lloyd’s productions for the Trafalgar Studios following his hugely successful, James McAvoy-starring Macbeth, is turbo-charged Pinter. Eyeliner-runningly funny, sharply satirical, whippet sharp and cleverly bonkers, it’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Noises Off with a dose of Orwell all brought together under Pinter’s young eye (this is An Early Pinter) and served up with a heavy dose of mega-watt acting. It’s at once an allegory of totalitarianism and a belly-aching farce. And every bit as brilliant as that sounds.

The play is set on Christmas Day in an unnamed institution that’s only ever referred to as a ‘rest home’, that coy description mocked by the occasional screeches and cries that rattle through the ancient pipes and walls. While it may be Christmas, there’s not much to celebrate here, there’s not a single holly-decked hall or stray bauble. The institution’s director, Mr Roote (Simon Russell Beale), doesn’t even know what day it is until his sycophantic, slimy underling Mr Gibbs (a wonderfully controlled and creepy John Simm) tells him. But Gibbs isn’t just on hand to guide his boss through the calendar (although at one point, that’s exactly what he does do), he’s there to inform Roote of two unexpected problems that have arisen within the peeling walls of the institution that Roote prides on running with military precision; one nameless numbered patient has died, while another has given birth to a baby boy. Little does Roote know that these two catastrophes will be one of the day’s highlights (cake aside).

The opening scene between Russell Beale and John Simm delivers a 100-watt jolt. The play races out of the starting block quicker than you can say “oh, that John Simm is shorter than he looks on the telly” (which, admittedly, is quite a long time). The physicality of SRB is amazing. He could reduce me to giggles with every bulging stare and incredulous gawp. Not that the others couldn’t match his brilliance, including Indira Varma as a pitch perfect parody of a femme fatale, Miss Cutts.

Instructed to root out the ‘rapist’ father of the baby, Gibbs turns out to be every bit as menacing as he seems, picking on the bumbling, naive new-boy Lamb who’s subjected to electroshock treatment so brilliantly acted by Henry Melling (Dudley in Harry Potter minus the puppy fat) that I was squirming in my seat, the intensity and horror sharpened by the comedy that had preceded it.

Simon Russell Beale is magnificent as Mr Roote, although he’s more cuddling that callous even when he’s beating the shit out of his impertinent subordinate Lush (deftly and charmingly played by John Heffernan). The comedy in The Hothouse is there as much to bring into sharp relief the horror of the place as it is to reduce the audience to giggly messes, but at times the eye-wateringly funny lines and the comedic delivery rather swamps the sinister message at the heart of it.

But it would be churlish to complain about a play being too funny. Pinter’s script is full of clever witty lines and Long’s production was not afraid to exploit the play’s physical comedy either. Even Russell Beale has said he took the part because he got to throw whisky in another character’s face, not once, but twice. And when you leave a theatre laughing (rather inappropriately) and are still on a theatrical high in Zone 2, you know he was right to.

The Hothouse is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 August 2013. For tickets and more information visit www.thehothousewestend.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Damage by Josephine Hart

Damage by Josephine Hart

 

There’s a dark heart to Josephine Hart’s cult novel Damage, her captivating story of a toxic love affair, a gripping study into the underbelly of obsessive love and betrayal.

The malice at the centre of the novel is Anna, the damaged woman who destroys those around her like a bomb that explodes when she meets the unnamed narrator, her fiance’s father, their union imploding and unleashing its hell, killing, maiming and scarring everyone near the centre of the blast. 

The unnamed narrator is a respectable GP-turned-MP. Until the age of 50, his life has been easy  and outwardly perfect, if passionless. Wriggling out from under the steely control of his domineering father and his formidable will, he goes onto become a doctor in a leafy part of London and marries a beautiful, serene woman called Ingrid who bears him two beautiful children, Martyn and Sally.

Ingrid is a cardboard cutout wife – elegant, beautiful, independently wealthy, she keeps a perfect house, is never not impeccably dressed in neutral natural fibres and makes few demands on her clever husband. But the cracks in this paperthin perfect life, constructed with careless ease and little thought, rip in two when the narrator meets his son Martyn’s girlfriend, Anna.

Anna is a ghost of a character, she is formed through the eyes of the narrator, people’s reactions to her (women don’t like her; she unnerves Ingrid and even her own mother eyes her with contempt and mistrust) and the details we glean from the stories she tells of her tragic past. But her charms inject our middle-aged protagonist with a crazed desire. He’s besotted with her the moment they lock eyes at a book launch, feeling for the first time that he’d ‘met my sort, another of my species’.

Their passionate, solely physical affair isn’t a conscious one, the narrator describes it as if it were a juggernaut  an unstoppable beast that he knows will lead to disaster, but is powerless against Anna. When their world does implode, it’s in a way even he can’t have foreseen.

Damage is a look at the veneer of perfection, of the danger of putting appearances and society’s perceptions over being true to yourself to the extent that when you do taste the “internal landscape”, you’ll destroy everything and anyone to feel, as the narrator puts it when he first meets Anna “at home” with yourself.

The story is a brisk, absorbing read, but its true star is Hart’s poetic writing. She’s a master of poet eloquence and is one of those writers who feels like she’s articulating my own jumbled thoughts. The novel is full of great lines that say so much with so few words. “Damaged people are dangerous, they know they can survive,” is the book’s most famous, but I liked her ponderings on the perceived idea that happy children will be happy adults.

“Might not a happy childhood be the worst possible preparation for life? Like leading a lamb to the slaughter?” This idea must have resonated great with Hart who had a tragic childhood and one that was stamped on her heart until her death, but her unhappy start in life didn’t stop her drive and enthusiasm for life, literature and people.

Damage is not a cosy read, it’s violent and brutal in an all too human way, but it rewards you with a rich, dramatic and beautifully told, tale.

by Suzanne Elliott