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

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


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Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube

The Height Of The Storm by Florian Zeller – review

Jonathan Pryce & Eileen Atkins shine in confusing drama

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Production shot from The Height Of The Storm by Florian Zeller with Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce
Eileen Atkins & Jonathan Pryce in The Height Of The Storm

Florian Zeller’sThe Height Of The Storm is confusing. If you’re going to see it, it’s good that you know this because otherwise, like me, you’ll spend the whole evening trying to work out what’s going on instead of simply enjoying a moving love story.

The play is meant to be confusing but, unlike Florian Zeller’s The Father where it’s soon apparent that we are seeing the world from the point of view of a brain befuddled by dementia, on this occasion it is never clear why.

We start by meeting an elderly man called Andre. It appears that his wife is dead. Sometimes he seems vague, hardly there, sometimes people are hardly aware of him. Is he living in memory but not physically? Does he have dementia? Then it seems he is dead and it’s his wife Madeleine who has survived. At other times, it seems both could be dead or both alive.

Click here to watch Paul’s review of The Height Of The Storm on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

These appear to be various possibilities of how the end days will pan out for an elderly couple.  My take is that they are visions of the future imagined by a couple prior to a suicide pact (there is much mention of poisonous mushrooms) but there are as many possibilities as there are potential outcomes of the Brexit negotiations.

What we do know for sure is that we are witnessing a couple at the end of their days who have been so in love for a lifetime that their bond lasts beyond death or perhaps dementia. There’s no sign of age withering Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins. They give an acting masterclass as the couple. They fill their performances with subtle emotions- not only love but compassion, confusion, frustration, anger. Andre’s quiet warmth radiates into the auditorium. Madeleine’s acid comments cut through the air with stiletto sharpness.

Jonathan Kent’s naturalistic production is perfect for Florian Zeller’s play about enduring love 

Their relationship is the heart of the drama and leads to an immensely sad but uplifting climax, like, to use a key image from the play, a bird singing at the height of the storm of old age.

Jonathan Kent‘s naturalistic production, the detailed set by Anthony Ward that suggests a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions and Christopher Hampton‘s translation provide Zeller with perfect support.

Production shot showing cast of The Height Of The Storm at Wyndham's Theatre London
The Height Of The Storm

Depending on your age, you may also recognise the amusing attempts of the adult children to organise their parents’ lives and indeed shut those lives down by making arrangements for moving to a home.

I’ve read that you need to see this play two or three times to understand it. Since this is being presented at a mainstream London theatre, I imagine few will arrive expecting such confusion and even fewer will be able to afford to pay West End prices to see it again. If you go to see it, you might wish M. Zeller had given you a few more clues as to how to get inside The Height Of The Storm but you will come away touched by this portrait of transcending love.

The Height Of The Storm by Florian Zeller starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins can be seen at Wyndham’s Theatre until 1 December 2018

Watch Paul’s YouTube review of The Height Of The Storm below