Theatre review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O'Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O’Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

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.

Splendour | Donmar Warehouse | Until 26 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Mistress Contract, Royal Court Theatre

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Abi Morgan, Britain’s script writer du jour, is the woman with the pen behind big screen hits such as Shame and The Iron Lady and the small screen misfire The Hour (that I actually rather enjoyed) as well as many other TV and movie screenplays. And now she’s taking on theatre with her playwriting debut The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court, an adaptation of the true story of one couple’s attempt to redefine the nature of relationships – or at least their own.

The book is written by the anonymous She and He, now 88 and 93 respectively. It’s written as a dialogue based on the conversations they have logged on an archaic looking Sony tape recorder during their 30 year relationship.

We first meet She (Saskia Reeves) and He (Danny Webb) in her (paid for by him) modernist glass house in the desert (masquerading as a garden as She pointed out at one point) that’s full of very unsubtle phallic cacti. It’s 1981 and She looks like Diane Keaton in Anna Hall. This may or may not be deliberate, there was certainly something very Woody Allen about the production, all introspective, slightly self-conscious discussions, half-ideas flinched from the stacks of books that piled up and up after each scene.

They had first meet at college in the 1950s. They were both married when they chanced upon each other some 30 years later, a meeting that led to an affair that would span three decades and ultimately spawn a book and this play.  She is a committed, academic feminist with three children whose conflicted feelings about men and marriage lead her to the idea of drawing up a contract between her and her lover. He would provide her with a home and an income in return for “all sexual acts as requested with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers”.

The structure of the book lends itself well to a stage production, although would the nature of these conversations (essentially: two people sparring about gender politics and an awful lot of navel gazing) make for engaging theatre?

The answer is: on the whole, yes. The opening 10 minutes of this one act play with its talk of blow jobs, orgasms and all night sex sessions seemed to set the scene for a randy 90 minutes, much to the disgust of two Chelsea ladies who walked out noisily during one of the scene’s more revealing (verbally at least) parts.

But this bawdy start soon gave way to something far more introspective and political. The Mistress Contract was remarkably free of sex; it’s a story of feminism and gender politics within a relationship and also the changing nature of feminism – is She’s Andrea Dworkin-style book-focused feminism still relevant in a world where too many people (wrongly) believe the equality job is done?

The two actors were quietly engaging and handle the whiff of pretension with a down-to-earth relatability. She and He could come across as rather silly pseudo intellectuals, but Reeves and Webb instilled them with a likability. Webb in particular handles He with aplomb. He who goes from a bolshy bloke full of machismo and misplaced sexual confidence to a shuffling, baseball wearing old man, content to talk irrigation systems over the breakfast table without the shift feeling jarring.

The Mistress Contract raises a great many questions that it doesn’t answer: was She’s decision to hand over control to a man enlightening or a betrayal of her beliefs? Was she not putting all the power in his hands? Or was she allowing him to discover himself what she meant to him? Was their contract any less restricting than a marriage? These make for many an overheard lively conversation in the Royal Court bar afterwards.

The end goes rather meta as the two of them, now shuffling around a fax machine waiting for their editor’s verdict on their manuscript. With the imminent publication of their book, their project – and their relationship – was over. Or was it…

The Mistress Contract is now booking at the Royal Court until 22 March. Visit www.royalcourttheatre.com for tickets.

by Suzanne Elliott