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: Other Desert Cities, The Old Vic

Peter Egan and Sinéad Cusack as Lyman and Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities

Family dramas with mismatched parents and offspring locked in a room together for a festive occasion, jabbing accusatory figures at each other, has been playwright fodder for the past few decades. As the world opened up to us, playwrights seemed to shrink inwardly, aiming to make sense of the wider world within our own small ones.

I have mixed feelings about theatrical family dramas. Done right, they simmer with resonance and captivate with a power that a play with bigger boundaries can’t. But they can often misfire, descending into shouty cliches where middle class characters stomp about in bare feet on plush rugs, desperately slurping glasses of wine while pacing up and down.

The synopsis of Other Desert Cities reads like one of those; privileged kids? Check. Successful parents? A Dark Secret? Tick, yes, oh yes. Add in booze (whiskey, not wine) and barefeet (one set) and we looked like we might be in for an evening of disparate shouting.

But West Wing writer Jon Robin Baitz is better than that. His ingredients may be mundane, but the result is Michelin starred. Other Desert Cities is set in Palm Springs in 2002 as America is still shaking from the 9/11 attacks and is now at war with Iraq. As the bombs drop on Baghdad, there’s another war about to erupt in the spacious living room of Polly (Sinéad Cusack) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan), two former Hollywood actors turned Republican politicians who dine with the Regans and pine for the days of an old ‘merica. They are scared inside their desert oasis and their fear is making them mean. But their lives are more complicated than their days of tennis and country club lunches imply and the arrival of their two grown up children, their damaged writer daughter Brooke and sex addicted son Trip along with Polly’s hippy, alcoholic sister, for Christmas unlocks their vulnerability.

Baitz’s script is sparky and original, the intensity broken up with astutely funny lines; the play bristles with anger, resentment and exasperation. The acting is all superb, especially Paul Egan who lies low for the first half, only for his character to unleash his grief and heartbreak so movingly in the second half. Cusack plays her ice cold republican matriarch with a caustic wit with relish, while Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves’ shouty girlfriend in Parenthood, tones her adolescent angst down for this role and strikes a convincing note as a desperate, sad woman searching for the truth at what ever cost. Clare Higgins and Daniel Lapaine as Silda Grauman and Trip Wyeth give this ensemble piece extra humanity and humour.

Other Desert Cities is a very American play, but, like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill  it’s also a very human one, so its themes transcend the Atlantic. It’s very American-ness also helps to  dampen down the class element which can often hinder a middle class family drama like this; rich kids whining can be eye-rollingly dull.

Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, Other Desert Cities is, unlike the city it’s set in, anything but dry and bland. It’ll grip you by the throat from the beginning and take you by surprise right up until the end.

by Suzanne Elliott

Until 24 May, for more information and tickets