The Theatreguide.London Review
The Breath Of Life
Haymarket Theatre Winter-Spring 2003
We can thank David Hare for creating the occasion for Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to appear together onstage for our delight. Unfortunately the play itself isn't very good.
The two Dames play the wife (Dench) and decades-long mistress (Smith) of a man who has recently left both of them for a younger woman.
Trying to make sense out of it all, the wife uses the pretence of writing her memoirs to visit the mistress in her Isle of Wight hideaway and ask some probing questions - when did you meet? What did you see in him and he in you? What did he say about me?
And so on. In the course of a day and night of reminiscences on both sides we realize that these two strong, independent, creative women, each of whom says at one point or another "I didn't want to be defined in terms of a man," have in fact done that all their lives and continue to define themselves entirely in relation to the absent husband-lover.
In other words, this is not a play to take an ardent feminist to. While there is much fun to be had along the way, particularly in watching the two master craftswomen at work, the play doesn't add up to much that is memorable or dramatically satisfying.
Maggie Smith has much the showier role, as she gets to deliver an endless string of epigrams and one-liners in her patented dry throwaway manner. She also looks fantastic - erect, forceful and beautiful, so that if you sit far enough back in the audience she could be thirty or forty years younger.
Judi Dench serves for too much of the time as straightman, providing the set-ups for Smith's punchlines. But if you watch carefully, you'll realise that she is the play's moral and emotional backbone, keeping it from drifting off into Noel Coward brittleness. She's also dressed and wigged to look as dowdy as possible.
David Hare claims in a programme note that he did not write this play for these two actresses and that in fact they had to fight type in rehearsal to find the characters. So director Howard Davies must get credit for guiding them to the point where they seem so absolutely at home in the roles, making every line sound as if it were written for them.
In the same note, Hare says the impetus for the play was the desire to explore what it means to be in one's sixties today, when what was once old age is now just the beginning of a long new chapter in one's life.
That's an interesting idea for a play, but it's not the play he's written. What we have here is a 1930s two-handkerchief women's movie starring Bette Davis. And in the absence of Davis, you simply can't do better than these two stars.
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