Wyndham’s Theatre, London *****
Review: by Carole Woddis of performance seen Oct 9, 2018:
French playwright, Florian Zeller is definitely the playwright do nos jours. If Pinter at one time could do no wrong in certain eyes and in the autumn of his years, could expect several of his plays to be running somewhere simultaneously, Zeller too now carries a similar halo. After huge UK successes with The Father, The Mother, The Truth and The Lie, now comes The Height of the Storm, once again in the limpid, easy-on-the-ear translation of Christopher Hampton.
Part of Zeller’s magic, like Pinter’s, is his command of keeping audiences guessing. His dramas so often circulate in way or another around a disconnection between what you think you’re seeing but which are almost immediately shown to be quite the contrary.
In that, Zeller is fast becoming THE master craftsman, again like Pinter, of the enigmatic, the uncertain – one who can be relied upon to create something intrinsically theatrical. The suspension of disbelief, the intake of breath, the sustained silence are the hallmarks of a Zeller theatrical experience and one that could not be replicated in any other form.
It would be all too easy – and cynical – however, to feel Zeller was simply replicating a formula that has proved so popular. Each play, domestic, family oriented in nature, is, of itself, a conundrum related to a specific issue. In The Truth – adultery and self delusion; in The Mother – psychosis; and in The Father – dementia and being confined in a Home.
To some extent, Zeller’s André in The Height of the Storm shares similarities with this paterfamilias in The Father. Both are ageing titans, both with the touch of Lear about them and a daughter who Cordelia-like is a favourite and an enabler in the father’s deteriorating old age.
Amanda Drew’s selfless and indeed quiet and unselfish portrayal of Anne is in her own way a lynch-pin of Jonathan Kent’s exquisitely modulated production in which the spotlight concentrates most profoundly on the two parents – Eileen Atkins’ mother, Madeleine and Jonathan Pryce’s towering but rapidly dementing family head, André.
Pryce is extraordinary. Once accounted a firebrand in his youth, like Corin Redgrave, Nigel Hawthorne and the wondrous Kenneth Cranham (the father in Zeller’s The Father for which he won the Olivier Best Actor award), his range and depth seem to have deepened and expanded with age.
Like his character in The Wife, the film in which he stars with Glenn Close doing the rounds this autumn, André too is a writer. A lesser actor might have fallen on certain mannerisms, so close the parallels.
But Pryce brings a completely new palette to bear on Zeller’s André, a man much admired for his writer, but as we now see him, caught on the thresh-hold of identity collapse through Alzheimer’s or some other dementia.
The Height of the Storm is a portrait of mental confusion but from an audience’s perspective, equally, of spectator confusion. For such is Zeller’s control of his material, André’s memories of his life with his beloved wife, Madeleine, are juxtaposed in such a way as to make it unclear for large swathes of the play’s 80s minutes as to who is living, who has died, who is mourning who and who is still present in the physical and metaphysical sense.
It’s quite beautiful to watch the way Pryce switches mood and cognitive processes with a slight look in the eyes, the biting of a lip, an enthusiastic exclamation of `mushrooms’ whilst Atkins peels and unpeels a steady stream of them.
So a mystery woven within a love story, woven within sibling rivalry as well as a portrait – like The Wife – of a long and happy marriage. Indeed so happy that ultimately, it is a comment on symbiotic relationships and dependency and how one can survive living without the other.
As Madeleine, Atkins’s performance is golden, effortless in its attention and concentration whilst Drew, Anna Madeley as the second daughter and James Hillier have the slightly unenviable task of supplying, as it were, solid family background.
One other character should be mentioned. The Woman played by Lucy Cohu (memorable as Princess Margaret in the bio-pic, The Queen’s Sister) adds a slightly voluptuous note to André’s memory bank. Was she or was she not his lover? did he or did he not bear her a son? Is her recollection to Madeleine and the two sisters who are visiting – for whose funeral, the mother or the father? – related to a mutual friend of hers and André’s? Or André himself?
So delicately, poetically wrought, The Height of the Storm ends on a poignant note as if finally André has come to terms with the loss of his wife. And her answer to him, `I’m here, I’ll always be here’, is a reminder of the wondrous longevity and strength of a true love.
All in all, fabulous and a privilege to watch Pryce and Atkins who, in their seventies, are now at the height of their powers.
The Height of the Storm
A new play by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
André: Jonathan Pryce
Madeleine: Eileen Atkins
Anne: Amanda Drew
Elise: Anna Madeley
The Man: James Hillier
The Woman: Lucy Cohu
André: Andrew McDonald
Madeleine: Pamela Merrick
Anne/Elise/The Woman: Harriet Benson
The Man: Dan Gaisford
Director: Jonathan Kent
Designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis
Composer: Gary Yershon
Costume Supervisor: Yvonne Milnes
Assistant Director: Jake Smith
Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes CDG
Presented by Simon Friend, Mark Goucher and Howard Panter with Gavin Kalin, Act Productions, Scott Landis, Tulchen Bartner Productions and Laurence Myers
British premiere of The Height of the Storm, Sept 1, Richmond Theatre, London
First perf of this production at Wyndhams Theatre, London, Oct 2, 2018
Runs to Dec 1, 2018