THE HUMAN BODY at the Donmar Warehouse
“this is a play that promises much and fails, ultimately, to deliver”
Lucy Kirkwood’s new play The Human Body is a complex creation, not unlike the human body itself. Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s stylish direction makes many pretty pictures of the bodies on stage from this overly length piece. They have assembled a talented cast, lead by Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport. Cinematic touches, created by onstage videographers, and clever screening of the images, give a touch of glamour to the proceedings. But the overall effect is to remind us that we are not in the cinema, watching a sharp edged black and white movie, but in a theatre, watching a play that is just out of focus.
Set in 1946, the same year that Parliament passed the National Health Service Act, The Human Body is a timely reminder of what an enormous difference free health care made to Second World War exhausted Britain. GP Iris Elcock, (Keeley Hawes) and her disabled war veteran husband Julian (Tom Goodman-Hill) are attempting to rebuild their marriage in much the same way that the rest of the country is attempting to rebuild. Which is to say—they are outwardly supportive of each other as Iris juggles her household responsibilities with her medical practice, and her political ambitions. Presented as an outwardly successful, New Look woman, It’s in the interior spaces of home, her GP practice, and later, a railway carriage, that all Iris’ juggling comes off the rails.
Echoes of the British movie Brief Encounter allows playwright Kirkwood an attempt at some of the glamour and powerful, yet repressed emotions captured so well in director David Lean’s classic. But The Human Body is less about the passionate affair Iris has with actor George as a result of a chance encounter in a railway carriage. It’s more about her boundless ambition to be in Parliament. Kirkwood’s play isn’t even about the passing of the National Health Act, despite the occasional reference to Aneurin Bevan, who spearheaded the passing of the Act. The Human Body is ultimately about Iris—seen from every angle, thanks to the presence of those videographers on stage. We see Iris attempt the impossible. To be a wife, mother, successful career woman, politician, and lover to George. When we see Iris fail to manage all these roles, even her assistance in supporting the passage of the National Health Act, isn’t quite enough to salvage The Human Body. No amount of brilliant acting, stylish direction, and onstage videographic wizardry can overcome a script that fails to give an audience some sense of catharsis.
Yet Keeley Hawes manages to keep Iris a fully rounded character despite the shortcomings of the script. She is ably supported by fellow actors Jack Davenport and Tom Goodman-Hill. Jack Davenport’s portrayal of George is particularly noteworthy. He manages to reveal George the man with a complex family life, lurking beneath the film actor’s polished charm. Tom Goodman-Hill has the thankless task of portraying Julian, Iris’ resentful husband, but succeeds in making Julian sympathetic nonetheless. He, along with Pearl Mackie and Siobhán Redmond take on a host of other roles as well. Together these seasoned actors bring energy and a sense of ever-changing drama to The Human Body.
Nevertheless, The Human Body cannot decide whether it is a play, or a film. Kirkwood writes the script as though it were a screenplay, but bringing on bits of furniture, endless props, often held by stagehands while the actors use them, simply serve to remind the audience that film can manage all these complicated changes of location simply by saying “Cut!” and moving on. If one tries to change the location in the theatre on stage, it merely looks clunky. In Iris and George’s passionate encounters, the camera is an intrusive third party, no matter how beautiful the images captured on the screen above the actors. What’s happening on stage is a messy distraction, and even good lighting and snatches of Rachmaninov’s lovely music cannot help the actors establish the same intimacy when there’s a camera in the way. There is a profound difference in the ways that theatre achieves its magic on stage, and film on the screen, and The Human Body is a very good lesson in why that is.
It says much for the skills of the actors that the playing time of The Human Body passes as quickly as it does. Fans of Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport will not be disappointed. But this is a play that promises much and fails, ultimately, to deliver.
THE HUMAN BODY at the Donmar Warehouse
Reviewed on 28th February 2024
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue:
THE HUMAN BODY
THE HUMAN BODY<