Florian Zeller’s The Forest – review

Toby Stephens and Paul McGann share the honours as a man on the edge

★★★

Production photo of Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in Florian Zeller's The Forest at Hampstead Theatre in London 2022
Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in The Forest. Photo: The Other Richard

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become familiar to British audiences thanks to plays like The Truth, The Lie, The Height Of The Storm and the trilogy of The Mother, The Father and The Son. His new play The Forest is the first to receive its world premiere in the UK,  and comes on the back of the award-winning film of The Father with Anthony Hopkins.

So you probably know Florian Zeller’s approach to playwriting. It started as an innovative way of getting inside people’s minds. In The Father, it was a brain confused by dementia, in The Mother, a mid life crisis, in The Son a depressed teenager. He achieves this by having the characters act out their lies, self deception, false memories, fears and desires, often repeating scenes with variations of dialogue or even characters, and none of it is necessarily in a linear narrative. So it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout his plays, we are asking ourselves What is the truth? What actually happened? For which there may or may not be an answer.

As time has gone on, what was surprising and original has become a signature style. It may even be in danger of becoming a cliché- but not yet! Once again, Zeller brings alive a potentially mundane story.

In The Forest, the subject is a married hospital consultant who has been having an affair with a younger woman. As she demands that he legitimises their relationship, he is overtaken by fear about what that would do to his marriage and career (the two of which are tied together, at least in his head), not to mention guilt at betraying his wife.

From the start, we are in familiar Zeller territory. We are plunged into a confusing jigsaw of scenes in which we see the adulterer’s changing memories, fantasies and fears. The title refers to a story about a prince out hunting, who in pursuit of a stag that ultimately disappears, becomes lost in a forest.

Each of the three acts (there’s no interval by the way) begins with the same or at least a similar scene. The first scene sees Pierre, referred to in the cast of characters as Man 1, and played byToby Stephens, arriving home. His wife is clearly agitated. Their daughter’s long term boyfriend has been having an affair. Pierre talks to the girl about his indiscretion. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’ll work itself out’ he says. Pierre uses a conversation with the daughter to talk about his thoughts about a man having affair. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks because on the second occasion, the daughter isn’t there and he talks directly to his wife. This time he’s talking about their child’s reaction, indicating that he is concerned about his wife’s reaction to his own affair. The third time, the daughter barely gets a mention but the room has filled with flowers.

The no-strings affair is now tied up with his marriage and career

Then there’s scene two. A middle-aged man, referred to as Man 2 and played by Paul McGann, is in bed with a young woman. We’re not in doubt for very long that this is also Pierre. I’m guessing that, in his mind, Pierre has separated his affair from the rest of his life. In other words, he becomes a different person, a kind of alter ego. Before long, we are seeing the same or a similar scene but with Toby Stephens, just as Man 2 is Pierre in the third iteration of the opening scene. This indicates I think that the once no-strings affair is now tied up with this marriage and career.

Toby Stephens is brilliant as Man 1. His ready smile becomes a nervous grin. He leans back which at first seems relaxed but eventually looks like he’s reeling from blows. Paul McGann holds his own as Man2, showing a brittle harshness that soon collapses into panic.

Pierre’s character is complex and rounded. The other characters less so, perhaps because they’re part of his memory and imagination.

The treatment of the Girlfriend in the first bedroom scene is a case in point. When she gets out of bed and you see her partly naked before she puts on a shirt. Perfectly normal in real life of course but these days, you rarely see gratuitous nudity on stage, so we must assume there is a good reason for this. Actually, in the script, she is fully naked for the whole scene. I take it that this underlines that Pierre saw her as no more than someone he has sex with. She’s only given a name later as he starts to take her threat more seriously. Excellent as Angel Coulby’s acting is, there is little personality for her to get her teeth into.

Gina McKee makes the most of her limited role

Despite the limitations of the script, the glorious Gina McKee shows fine acting skill in managing to suggest there’s a lot going on the Wife’s head. Through a combination of strangled speech and sideways glances, she conveys a lack of passion that might have been a reason why Pierre strayed, insecurity, and the possibility that she suspects something.

Anna Fleischle‘s set is in three parts: a living room, a bedroom above the living room, and an office to the side. Each setting is invisible until the lights come up on it. The first two are built with tremendous attention to detail, and this naturalistic setting helps suggest that all that is going on in Pierre’s brain is happening while he continues to live out an everyday life.

The office is the exception. It’s pretty bare and seems to be where Pierre’s conversations with his conscience take place, or possibly interrogations by the police. He is being held in the room by a white faced man in black, chillingly played by Finbar Lynch. He looks like a character from an early horror film and wheedles Pierre with questions as he alternates between a good cop and bad cop style from a police procedural. The biggest question being ‘What happened?’

So what did happen? How did the affair end? What was the fate of the Girlfriend? Well, we can never be quite certain. There are some dramatic and shocking moments which turn this play into almost a thriller as well as a who-dun-it. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated for the pace, and imbuing all that goes on with an almost Hitchcockian suspense, helped by Isobel Waller-Bridge‘s edgy sound design.

By the end, we have been given some explanations (or are they?). The problem for this and other Zeller plays is that the truth, if and when it’s discovered, may not be as interesting or exciting as the process that led to the revelation.

The Forest continues at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March 2022

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producer

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The Winter’s Tale (RSC / BBC) – review

Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself

★★★★

Production photo from the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale as seen on BBC
Joseph Kloska in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The COVID-cancelled Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter’s Tale has returned as a play for TV, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season of ‘lost’ plays.

It is set in, or at least starts in, the 1950s. We find ourselves in the court of the King of Sicily, Leontes. Within minutes the loving relationship between ruler and his queen Hermione is in tatters as Leontes succumbs to jealousy and the belief that his lifelong best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione.

On the page, it seems hard to accept how easily this happens but William Shakespeare is the king of dramatists and the spoken word carries you along. The words in this play may not quite match those in the greatest Shakespeare plays, say Hamlet, but, tumbling out of mouths on stage, they provide image after image of the human condition and with a speed and style always matching the characters. The result, despite the implausibility of the plot at many points, is deep, believable characters caught up in a gripping drama.

Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale not as a book or a movie but as a play. So, thank goodness, the director Erica Whyman has confidence that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing.  It is filmed as a stage play. Bridget Caldwell’s film direction is kept simple and that’s to its credit. There are close-ups of course but otherwise we’re left to see the actors on the large Swan Theatre stage, which itself is sparsely decorated by set designer Tom Piper. Any music, which is provided by the eclectic Isobel Waller-Bridge, is occasional and enhances rather than intrudes.

Although The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, the first half is pretty much a tragedy. Leontes presumes his new baby is by Polixenes and condemns it to death. He puts his wife on trial with disastrous consequences. In fact, the deaths and apparent deaths bring home to Leontes how wrong he has been. And don’t forget this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theatrical history- ‘exit pursued by a bear’. I can tell you that bear isn’t after a cuddle.

Production photo of Kemi-Bo Jacobs in The Winter's Tale
Kemi-Bo Jacobs in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Some excellent actors to convey the script. Joseph Kloska plays Leontes as quite ordinary, somewhat pathetic. Even when he’s at his worst, he seems more mentally unstable than tyrannical which, I think, helps offset the tragic nature of this comedy. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione conveys her lines with regal authority and dignified passion. Ben Caplan playing Leontes’ right hand man Camillo makes every careful syllable suggest the conflict between loyalty and conscience.  Amanda Hadingue as Hermione’s broken-hearted companion Paulina touches us with her uncontrolled anger.

So the first half, which is about 90 minutes and takes us to the end of act 3, is very dark.

And having set up the tragedy, Shakespeare changes the tone. It’s 16 years later, a time gap which itself is unusual for Shakespeare. To some extent, this is a play about the healing power of time. Leontes has been grieving and repenting all this time.

We begin the second half, now in the mid 1960s, with some rock’n’roll. It becomes much more like the Shakespearean comedies we are familiar with. There are people disguising their origins, there’s forbidden love, there’s a mischief-making rascal Autolycus played with a cheeky chappy style by Anne Odeke. All’s well that ends well, except for the ones that died.

There’s a romantic, pastoral theme to the second half, including young lovers, shepherds and a sheep shearing festival. This makes the sixties setting very appropriate, it being a time when pop culture embraced romanticism and nature. In fact, the concept of contrasting the austere fifties with the free sixties is an inspired way of representing the two halves of The Winter’s Tale. The beautiful costumes by Madeleine Girling are elegant in the first half, more flamboyant in the second.

So, it’s a bittersweet ending, a story of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, which doesn’t deny the ill that has gone before. It is clear that some things that have been lost will never be regained.

There are some nice touches in the production. To emphasise that Leontes is conducting a show trial of Hermione, we see it partly as being televised with early black-and-white TV cameras. And later on, a feast is shown being filmed on Super 8 or something kind of early home movie.

Those are really the only thing approaching a gimmick. Otherwise, it’s a joy to watch a production that allows actors to speak Shakespeare’s words at length and without distraction.

The Winter’s Tale was broadcast on BBC4 on 25 April and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Production photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the stage show of Fleabag at Wyndham's Theatre London
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Last year Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her original stage show Fleabag for the last time. Now she has generously made the NTLive recording available on demand online with the proceeds going to charity

This is the show that was first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and which led to the two incredibly successful TV series.

First thing to say, the quality of this film is excellent, at least on the TV I saw it on. The performance takes place entirely centre stage where Phoebe Waller-Bridge sits on a chair, only occasionally standing up. She is picked out by lights and all around her is an inky blackness that fills three quarters of the screen.

It’s an apparently simple design by Holly Pigott but the suggestion of isolation and that this person is on the edge of a dark emptiness is hugely effective. And the film doesn’t mess with this. In fact, this has got to be as good as it gets if you’re not actually there, because it’s like a front row seat, it may even be better than being there.

What we get is the full impact of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent acting because she has to mime some of her past activities such as taking a photo in a toilet of her vagina and does impressions, for example imitating a guinea pig or pursing her lips like her rodent-mouthed lover. Her clipped plummy voice is gorgeous to listen to and offers a contrast to the earthy descriptions that come out of it, masturbating to Pornhub for example.

Because we’re all so familiar with the TV series, there is little to surprise or shock us now in the way that her explicit language and her casual even cynical attitude to sex must have done when this first hit the stage. The story contains many of the elements of the first series: the suicide of her best friend, her own guilt, her cold sister and her sister’s lecherous husband, the guinea pig-themed coffee shop and so on. But it’s different because it is a monologue and therefore incredibly intense.

I did notice that the Fleabag character is harder edged than on TV where she reveals more tenderness and good intentions even if they are usually misinterpreted.

Assuming you’ve seen the TV series, there isn’t the surprise revelation of why she is so depressed, why she has such a low sense of worth, and why she’s obsessed with sex, so often involving being abused, but the gradual revelation- in throwaway lines- still packs a ‘what did she say?’ punch. It is a master class in constructing and writing a script.

One of the great qualities of the writing in both this play and the subsequent TV series is the way it leads us into laughing at things that are quite shocking or reprehensible and then pulls the rug from under us for laughing- or vice versa. Because there is so much sadness in the midst of the comedy. ‘People make mistakes’ she says wistfully.

Although it’s a one-woman show, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s long time collaborator and in this case director Vicky Jones and the subtle mood lighting by Elliott Griggs and the often  graphic sound effects by Isobel Waller-Bridge that accompany the monologue.

You can see Fleabag on the sohotheatreondemand.com website until the end of May 2020 and on Amazon Prime. It will also be available to audiences in some other countries as well as on Amazon Prime in the US from 10 April for two weeks. In the UK, it costs £4.00 to watch, although you can choose to pay more and all proceeds will go towards the National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together and Acting for Others, which supports theatre workers in times of need, and also towards grants of £2,500 to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube