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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Embers
Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2006

Christopher Hampton's new play, based on a Hungarian novel, is a rumination on the topics of honour, friendship and obsession. But its main attraction is as a vehicle for the welcome return of Jeremy Irons to the stage after an absence of almost two decades.

Sandor Marai's novel tells of two close friends in the Austro-Hungarian army at the end of the Nineteenth Century. One abruptly resigns his commission and disappears, and when they meet again forty years later, the one who stayed demands an explanation.

Hampton's play limits itself to the reunion. Henrik (Irons) was deeply wounded by the decamping of Konrad (Patrick Malahide) and has spent the intervening decades obsessing over it, to the point of near-madness. As obsessives do, he remembers every single detail of the days leading up to Konrad's disappearance, and in preparing for his questions he barely lets Konrad get a word in edgewise.

There's a woman involved, of course, but one of the play's discoveries is that after four decades it hardly matters who loved who or who betrayed who. The real issue for both men is how the events of the past shaped the rest of their lives, and whether their separate destinies since then have had meaning and honour to them. (The novel's Hungarian title, which is close to The Candles Burn Right Down, hints at this.)

That's not a bad subject for a play or a novel, and it is moving and thought-provoking enough to carry the evening. But of course Hampton also provides two interesting characters and two challenging acting roles.

Jeremy Irons is welcome back to the stage, a bit more grizzled than we remember (How much of the grey in his hair is makeup?) He is onstage uninterruptedly and has at least 90% of the lines, so on one level his is a remarkable technical accomplishment.

But he also captures the character's complexity, showing us a man who may indeed be close to madness, but whose madness has hurt him far more than anyone else, and who seems before our eyes to fight his way through it to a startling wisdom and clarity of vision.

But it is not a one-man show. Patrick Malahide has at least as difficult a technical challenge as the almost silent Konrad, holding his concentration and focus so that the character is clearly listening throughout. Where Irons' character babbles on compulsively and inadvertently lets slip insights into his mental and emotional state, Malahide shows his character's progression with the subtlest of looks, gestures and other reactions.

(Acting teachers know that listening onstage is the hardest thing for students to do, and I would urge them to send their classes to watch Malahide give a master class in the art.)

By all means come to see the movie star onstage, and appreciate the fine job he does. But pay attention to his co-star as well, and also appreciate the wisdom of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Embers - Duke of York's 2006