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
Recently reviewed at this venue:
Bad Days and Odd Nights
Reviewed – 25th June 2021
“an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words”
It’s fifty years since Caryl Churchill’s short play “Abortive” was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but it still retains its sense of urgency and resonance today, complete with Churchill’s trademark gift for turning a pre-conceived and fashionable idea on its head. It is one of four of her earlier plays being revived to mark the re-opening of Greenwich Theatre, collectively titled “Bad Days and Odd Nights. James Haddrell’s production is unveiled without fanfare, but once word gets out it will certainly kick up a storm.
Churchill has always been a thrilling and challenging writer. Her dialogue and characterisation are so rich and layered that it often justifies repeat viewing. Haddrell is well aware of the need to do justice to the writing and has assembled an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words. Initially daunted by a running time of two and a half hours, you come away from this show still wanting more.
The evening is varied and dynamic, while still retaining the sense of a common theme running through the different set pieces. “Seagulls” is up first, and probably the most personal and reflective of the short plays. Kerrie Taylor is Valerie, an ordinary housewife who has the gift of moving objects by sheer willpower. Propelled into a showbiz career by her caring yet hard-headed manager (Gracy Goldman) she is beset with self-doubt; exacerbated by a meeting with a long-time supposed fan of hers (Bonnie Baddoo). The three women brilliantly expose the contradictory layers of these characters: Taylor’s mix of vulnerability and insufferability, with Goldman and Baddoo both hinting at a slight menace behind the devotion.
“Three More Sleepless Nights” introduces us to Churchill’s raw, invective, rhythmic and overlapping dialogue as we witness Frank (Paul McGann) and Margaret (Goldman – unrecognisable from the last scenario). The verbal warfare escalates but stops short of becoming physical, yet the bruises are just as visible. The reality of McGann’s performance is such that you feel you want to intervene, but Goldman’s Margaret gives as good as she gets. It cuts to a second sleepless night. A silent night. All calm, but far from bright. Pete (Dan Gaisford) and Dawn (Verna Vyas) are busy not communicating. Gaisford and Vyas manage to convey that this soporific detachment is just as dangerous as the previous scene’s underlying threat of violence. Finally, the third night we see Pete and Margaret together. A much better match. Happiness ever after. Yeah, right…!
“Abortive” is perhaps the most enigmatic piece of the evening, with a greater complexity of emotions running through it. Colin and Roz (McGann and Taylor) are a well-heeled couple. Aware of their privilege, Colin had previously taken in and cared for Billy – an unseen refugee – in an act of charity. Billy repaid their hospitality by raping Roz. McGann and Taylor are totally convincing as they unpeel their doubts and fears, dealing with the aftermath of the subsequent abortion. Slightly unnerving is Colin’s covert inference that he is not altogether convinced his wife was raped. An anachronism that might jar more nowadays than in the seventies, but symbolic of the honesty of Churchill’s writing and McGann’s authentic performance. These thoughts exist – right or wrong. But then Churchill hits us with a gorgeous counterpoint when Roz quips “… abortion is overrated. Men make it such a melodramatic topic!”
“Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen”, is set in 2010, an imagined and dystopian, futuristic London; from the perspective of when it was written. People live in one-room cellblocks, the air is thick with smoke and the streets littered with danger, and with a feral population of ‘fanatics’ who are out to kill either themselves or others. Mick (Dan Gaisford) lives alone with his memories of a time when birdsong could be heard outside his window and is waiting for the return of his daughter (Bonnie Baddoo), a rich celebrity whom Mick hopes will fund his escape to a cottage in the country. Meanwhile Vivian (Verna Vyas), a desperate neighbour who looks up to Mick, wants in on the action. This short play runs the danger of drifting from both the general theme of the whole evening, but also from reality itself. Yet the performances and conviction of the cast anchor the piece in credibility. Verna Vyas, in particular, is phenomenal as the electro-charged, babbling, Vivian.
This company have taken on, and given us (the audience), a challenge. But if they can pull it off with such success, so can we. For too long we have been starved of the oxygen of theatre (yes – not not not not not enough of it). “Bad Days and Odd Nights” is a much-needed lifeline and, not just a glimpse of how it used to be, but a spotlight on the return to normality – to what live theatre is all about.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
Bad Days and Odd Nights
Greenwich Theatre until 10th July
Five star shows we’ve reviewed this year: