The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2014
A couple who had a long-term affair broke up when his wife discovered it and, now a widower, he wants to resume things. But this 1995 play is by David Hare, so that can't be all there is to it.
Philosophical and ethical differences the lovers had been able to overlook back then loom larger now, and it is the debate on these issues that really interests the playwright.
Whether it will hold your attention as much as it does his or seem like an interruption in the human story will depend on whether you are more interested in ideas or people.
The man is a businessman who since the split has become rich and successful, while the woman has chosen to teach in an inner-city school and live on a council estate.
She accuses him of feeling no obligation to the less fortunate and indeed disdaining them in an almost racist way, while he charges her with acting out of a masochistic martyr compulsion driven by some guilty sense that she does not deserve happiness.
Both are probably right, and most of the second act of Hare's play is devoted to their taking turns arguing for their own life choices and against the other's motives for theirs.
If you are familiar with David Hare's work you will quickly recognise that the woman is a figure you've encountered before, the well-intentioned but ultimately impotent liberal humanist (Susan in Plenty, Isobel in The Secret Rapture, Stephen in A Map Of The World), with the man largely serving the structural purpose of cuing and goading her.
David Hare is one of the few contemporary playwrights who can make debate and the exchange of ideas theatrically interesting, and in this revival director Stephen Daldry and his actors don't allow the play to die in the talkier sequences (as it sometimes did in the original production two decades ago).
But there is no question that the parts of the play that are about the couple as living, feeling people are more engaging and theatrically alive than the long stretches in which they become mouthpieces for the author's thoughts.
Those who know Bill Nighy only from his dryly witty and languid film performances are likely to be surprised and impressed by the intense bottled-up energy he brings to his role here, though sometimes the character's nervous pacing and fiddling with props can seem choreographed. (You can almost hear him counting out the beats – one, two, three, turn; one, two, three, move chair.)
Carey Mulligan captures both the woman's sexuality and her intelligence (certainly not a rare combination in real life but difficult to convey together onstage) so that she manages to hang on to a sense of the character longer than you might expect when she is merely mouthing the playwright's ideas. Matthew Beard handles himself well in a small role that doesn't make a great deal of sense.
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