Donmar Theatre, London
Abi Morgan’s The Hour was one of the BBC’s sharpest, funniest, pulse-inducing drama series of 2011/12, a withering look at the corporation circa 1950s. A decade earlier, however, she had taken a boldly original look at behind-the-scenes power plays in the international political arena in the form of four women from very different backgrounds brought together on one particular night when their worlds are changing.
What, she asks, makes these women the way they are? How does power – and the lack of it – make them respond?
Morgan must have had several examples in her mind for Micheline, her central character who in Sinéad Cusack’s subtle, beautifully pitched performance comes across as part Imelda Marcos, part Elena Ceausescu.
In Peter McIntosh’s sumptuous gold and dangerously cut glass set, Micheline, smiling and controlling plays cat and mouse with her best friend, Genevieve whose artist husband died in mysterious circumstances, Gilma, an opportunistic interpreter from the wrong part of the country, and Kathryn, an independent minded foreign photo-journalist come to photograph Micheline’s husband, Julio, the dictator.
But Julio is late, the air crackles with approaching gunfire and the lights snap and flash with a noise like an amplified camera shutter.
Morgan doesn’t make it easy for us. She writes overlapping, short, often repeated scenes, the reason for which only emerges in the tense, highly charged last quarter hour. Four women, with scores to settle, at odds, divided by language.
But Splendour is also a play about love, what women will do for it, full of tiny crucial female detail you seldom hear expressed – as when Michelle Fairley’s Genevieve recounts the moment she knew her husband had been murdered by Micheline’s supporters but chooses to hide it from her young son. `I squeezed his hand and betrayed him. They don’t forget that.’
Fairley’s whole body seems to shrink in that moment even as Cusack’s Prada power dressed Micheline looks on with the impassivity of the seemingly impregnable. But her moment has come; the revolution is at the door. And even as it beckons, Cusack’s defiant, `shoot’, directed at the photo-journalist tells you all you need to know about the thrill and madness of power.
Splendour runs at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre to Sept 26, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate Aug, 2015