Reviewed – 15th February 20222
“By the end of the play, we are left with the feeling that our prize has somehow slipped through our fingers”
Hampstead Theatre’s production of Florian Zeller’s latest play The Forest is an intriguing work in its parts, but as a whole, adds up to something less than expected. It begins as a conventional drawing room drama. We meet a successful surgeon, Pierre, (Toby Stephens) and his conventional wife, Laurence, (Gina McKee) in their drawing room, as they attempt to comfort their daughter (Millie Brady) who is going through a messy break up with her boyfriend. The next scene opens in a bedsit with a man (Paul McGann) in bed with his lover, the much younger Sophie (Angel Coulby.) As the scenes progress, the audience realizes that the man in scenes one and two are actually the same character, played by two actors. We are witnessing the gradual disintegration of Pierre as the carefully constructed facade of the successful professional man that he has created, falls apart.
Why is this play called The Forest? At one point in the play a mysterious character called The Man in Black (Finbar Lynch) tells the story of a hunter who gets lured into the woods by a stag, the ultimate trophy. As the hunter goes deeper among the trees, he loses his way, and his prize. Did the stag even really exist? He does not know. This tale is, of course, a metaphor for the protagonist, Pierre, but also, sadly, for the audience of The Forest as well. By the end of the play, we are left with the feeling that our prize has somehow slipped through our fingers. On the plus side, The Forest provides lots to enjoy along the way.
Anna Fleischle’s complex set allows the audience to see all three spaces on stage at once. Thus the drawing room of Pierre and Laurence occupies the largest space, with Sophie’s bedsit above. Stage left is an office, where Pierre at various times confronts his daughter’s boyfriend (Eddie Toll); is interrogated by the Man in Black, and confesses to his best friend (Silas Carson) that he is having an affair. These spaces are used conventionally at first. Scene follows scene, lights go down on one space and then up on another. Then scenes repeat, but never in quite the same way, reality shifts, and the spaces merge. What seems like a very naturalistic drama to begin with turns into something dreamlike, surreal. We are now lost in the forest.
The Forest is clever, there is no doubt about that. There’s plenty for the audience to get its head around, and with a powerhouse cast to perform it, the evening is not unsatisfying. Christopher Hampton’s translation perfectly captures the mundane exchanges between characters, even when dealing with domestic tragedy, or love triangles. That is a hallmark of Zeller’s work. But the clever touches—the expressionistic Man in Black, and the nods to Pinter and Pirandello in the text, do not, when all is said and done, merge organically with the drama on stage. It never quite transcends its conventional drawing room drama roots. We fail to connect deeply with the characters, even as we enjoy the elegant theatrics. The most egregious error is placing an all too obviously fake dead stag on stage at the end of the play, with no preparation, other than the Man in Black’s allegorical tale. Strindberg could get away with placing symbols on stage, but then he lived in a more culturally groundbreaking age than our own. Perhaps the fault does not lie entirely with the playwright, however. Director Jonathan Kent plays it too safe by emphasizing the naturalistic, when perhaps he should have gone for broke and thrown the surrealistic elements of the play into sharper relief. The lighting (Hugh Vanstone) and sound (Isobel Waller-Bridge) could have done more in that respect, as well.
By all means visit this production of The Forest if you are up for a stylish evening in the always welcoming Hampstead Theatre. The terrific cast will make it more than worth your time. But Florian Zeller’s latest play may turn out to be a script that works better as a study piece than as a production. Then again, maybe it just needs to wait, like a fine wine, for the right moment to be decanted into a more adventurous age so that we can truly appreciate its flavour.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by The Other Richard
Hampstead Theatre until 12th March
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