Tag Archives: Isobel Waller-Bridge

The Forest

The Forest

★★★

Hampstead Theatre

The Forest

The Forest

Hampstead Theatre

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

 


The Forest

Hampstead Theatre until 12th March

 

Recently reviewed at this venue:
Big Big Sky | ★★★★ | August 2021
Night Mother | ★★★★ | October 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

The Watsons

★★★★

Menier Chocolate Factory

The Watsons

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory

Reviewed – 1st October 2019

★★★★

 

“witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen”

 

Emma Woodhouse is one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters – but what of Emma Watson? Austen abandoned her first Emma, heroine of the unfinished novel The Watsons, in 1805. Since then, several authors have sought to give Emma the ending she deserves.

Laura Wade is the latest writer to undertake the challenge, though she has the distinction of being a playwright rather than a novelist. Nor is she a relative of Austen’s, as many early contributors to The Watsons were. But, despite her apparent distance, Wade is more deeply involved than any of her predecessors.

Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was sent to live with her aunt as a child and now returns, aged nineteen, to the modest family estate. Sent straight into society, she soon has the attentions of three local men. But, just as she accepts a proposal from awkward aristocrat Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister), Laura (Louise Ford) bursts into the story to stop Emma making a terrible mistake. What follows is the story that Laura wants to tell, the story behind the telling of it, and the story of the characters that won’t let her have her way.

Even for those who aren’t Austen fans (me), The Watsons is a joy to watch. Wade’s script is witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen. She adds plenty of commentary, some of it topical, but much of it personal, about the struggle to write and the pressure of storytelling. In mixing her story with Austen’s, she manages to preserve what is special about the original work whilst amplifying it to new heights.

But what of the all-important end? Wade leaves us with just a taster of what is to come, but no more. Her strategy for finishing the story is as smart as the story itself, but does feel a tad rushed. There is not much insight given as to why Emma chooses to give Laura back control. I can only assume that she felt lost or afraid, but this is just speculation. A definite answer could really have cemented this, and given the audience a greater sense of Emma’s inner self.

One thing that cannot be faulted is the acting. There is not a single performance that does not hit its mark. Molony is a brilliant heroine, at once endearing and infuriating as she demands the right to tell her own story – at any cost. Louise Ford is so convincing a Laura that, for a second, you forget that there is another Laura, writing this Laura and everything else that’s going on. It is hard to choose the highlights of the remaining cast. Performances that immediately spring to mind are Jane Booker’s haughty Lady Osborne, Sally Bankes’ no nonsense Nanny, and Sophie Duval’s Mrs Robert – who, despite being ‘not in it very much’ makes her presence felt at all times. Credit must also be given to designer Ben Stones, whose blank page of a stage is the perfect space for Wade’s experimentation.

Despite initial reservations, this is one of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I have seen in a while, full of energy and wit that even Austen herself would have found impressive. And I think I quite like Jane Austen now, which means that, not only has Laura Wade written an excellent play, she has done the impossible.

 

 

Reviewed by Harriet Corke

Photography by Manuel Harlan

 


The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory until 16th November

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Gronholm Method | ★★★★ | May 2018
Fiddler on the Roof | ★★★★★ | December 2018
The Bay At Nice | ★★½ | March 2019
Orpheus Descending  | ★★★★ | May 2019

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews