Abi Morgan’s gripping, tense tale set against a brewing revolution held me captive
Set in the opulent palace of a dictator (who we never meet) of an unnamed country in the grip of civil war, Splendour is a taut, tight, tense play that’s ice cool and compelling.
A photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), personally invited by the dictator to take his portrait, arrives at the palace accompanied from the airport by an unreliable interpreter, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a young jittery woman from the war torn north, hiding her real identity out of fear.
The tyrant is not there, but his wife Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is there to greet – admittedly not with open arms – Kathryn. Hair as rigid as her grin, last season’s Prada handbag clutched to her body, her pony-skinned heels clip-clopping on the marble floors and standing her ground even though it’s littered with bodies – Cusack’s Micheleine is like a uber-glossy Margaret Thatcher (star of course of Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady).
The three of them are joined by Micheleine’s best friend of 35 years, Genevieve, a brittle, bird-like widow who has been held emotionally hostage by her powerful pal for reasons that become clear towards the end. She arrives dripping wet from the falling snow, dressed like a World War 2 landgirl whose dug one too many potatoes, urging Kathryn to study the painting by her late husband that hangs in the room (we never see this either).
Across the river, and seen from designer Peter McKintosh‘s huge stately windows, the south side of the city burns under a barrage of bombs. The main roads are blocked by caravans of refugees fleeing the bombing, the back roads thick with treacherous ice. The four women are locked together in this moment that may change them forever.
Splendour is a splintered, yet ultimately tidy tale, Morgan’s script employs some dexterous dialogue that skips between time and language. There’s no linear structure and parts of scenes are repeated with different characters delivering the lines, intertwined with their internal monologues. It sounds complicated, but Robert Hastie‘s neat production that punctuates each part with – literally – a bang helps bring the themes and story arc together while also reflecting the bombardment outside.
Western photographer Kathryn doesn’t speak the language of the country she’s in so relies on the translator Gilma – who, as Kathryn says “is an interpreter who can’t interrupt”. The script is all in English – there are no attempts at dodgy foreign accents – and language and concealment are key themes, while images are held up as reflections of the truth. Genevieve hides her real feelings for her friend; Gilma stashes video tapes and shot glasses in her bag while Kathryn keeps her heart locked. The real truth of how Genevieve’s husband sees his ‘best friend’ – the dictator – is revealed in his picture and Kathryn seeks to tell the truth of conflict through her lens.
The ensemble cast are all fantastic. Cusack as Elnett-fan and Imelda Marcos alike Micheleine is poised and controlled as she watches her riches and power crumble around her. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Fairley as the broken yet steely Genevieve, her performance was beautifully controlled, yet you could sense the emotion seeping through her pores. O’Reilly was cool, considered and captivating as the photojournalist, a rather weakly written character on Morgan’s behalf but pumped full of life by O’Reilly. Ashton as the jumpy, conflicted Gilma also impressed with a punchy performance.