Passion Play – August 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Peter Nichols

Directed by David Leveaux

Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre

Date: Saturday 3rd August 2013

Steve saw the original RSC production of this play, and according to our records, we both saw it in the West End in 1984 – I have no recollection of it at all. This performance will undoubtedly stay in my memory far longer, not just because of these notes but because we enjoyed ourselves as well as being moved by the characters’ situations.

The play told the story of James and Eleanor, who had been married happily enough for over twenty years. When home-breaking vamp Kate became single again, her previous conquest Albert having died without actually marrying her, she set her sights on James, one of Albert’s friends, and despite James’ inexperience at infidelity and expressed preference for the loving relationship he had with Eleanor, he was soon fully involved in an adulterous affair with Kate. Agnes, Albert’s ex-wife, came across a love letter which James had rashly written to Kate, and passed it to Eleanor after the latter had made some particularly sanctimonious comment about faithfulness in marriage.

It was at this point that Eleanor’s alter-ego arrived on stage. James’ alter-ego Jim had arrived after James’ first lunch with Kate, to show us the inner conflict within James’ mind; should he tell Eleanor about the lunch with Kate or not? In the end he lied, and the trajectory of the affair was inevitable after that. Eleanor’s double Nell began by showing us the upset and anger in Eleanor’s mind while on the surface she pretended to Agnes that everything was fine. The next scene was the confrontation between James and Eleanor after she showed him that she’d read the letter; with four people acting two parts at the same time, I did find it a bit confusing at first, but the humour it generated was more than worth it.

The first half ended with a montage of letters written between James, Eleanor and Kate, theoretically bringing James’ affair to an end while creating the illusion that they could still all be friends. The second half showed us how impossible that was, with James returning to Kate at the first opportunity, and Eleanor descending into terrible unhappiness culminating in a suicide attempt. Inevitably there was less humour in this half, and some of the scenes were hard to watch. There was no upbeat ending either, as the play ended with Eleanor alone on stage while the others enjoyed a Christmas get-together.

The set was fairly simple, but with a revolve and a moving screen there was a lot going on at times. They started with a basic white-walled room with stairs back right and a screen on the left in front of which stood a table and two chairs. There was another table in the space behind the screen and a bright red sofa across the front and right of the stage. A drinks trolley stood behind that and on the far right wall was a stereo and speakers. Coats and jackets hung on various walls. During the performance the space changed considerably, but the core location was James and Eleanor’s sitting room.

The humour included some lovely observational stuff. James had difficulty reading the menu in the restaurant, holding it further and further away before conceding defeat and looking for his glasses. There was also a brilliant joke when one of the paintings James was restoring was a square canvas all in yellow; apparently there was a small stain on it which no one else could see. But the majority of the humour came from the revealing comments made by Jim and Nell, with some contributions from James and Eleanor.

During the second half, the interactions between the ‘real’ characters and their alter-egos became blurred. Eleanor ended up talking to Jim for a while after she’d woken up from a nightmare, and both Eleanor and Nell sat in the therapist’s chair during what may have been the same session. It was during this scene that we could see James taking a young woman, possibly Kate, up the stairs to the bedroom, so we knew how that was going to end. I found the mixing of the characters a bit strange – I wasn’t sure what we were meant to understand by it – but on the whole it didn’t keep me from following or enjoying the play.

When it came to the suicide attempt though, I was definitely puzzled. Eleanor and James were at the front of the stage talking about Eleanor’s behaviour and the suicide attempt as if it were in the past, while Jim and Nell acted out the event at the back of the stage. We could see in the final scene that Eleanor had been damaged by the pills she’d taken, so presumably she had actually carried out the attempt, in which case what was her conversation with James about? I wasn’t too bothered, as it was tough to watch the final disintegration of the relationship and of Eleanor herself, so perhaps a bit of distance was essential at that point.

Nell left Eleanor during the last scene, going upstairs to get her suitcase and leaving before Kate arrived. The final image was of Kate’s back as she stood stark naked in the middle of the stage, with Jim at her feet and Eleanor on her own to the left of the stage. Kate had been wearing a fur coat with nothing underneath, and I noticed that Annabel Scholey was keeping the coat tightly wrapped around her when she took her bows – no surprise there. It was the penultimate performance, and I suspect the cast will be glad to get a break; it looks like a demanding show to be performing eight times a week. The start of the second half wasn’t helped by some strange shouting from the back of the stalls which calmed down pretty quickly when an usher turned up. And then a mobile phone went off, yet again, so the actors did well to keep going through all that.

Despite the downbeat ending, I liked the play a lot. I probably didn’t relate much to the characters the first time we saw it, and I’m fortunate enough not to have experience of their situations, but I could certainly empathise better this time around. James did come across as a bit of a shit particularly at the end, carrying on his affair regardless of the effect it was having on his wife whom he claimed to love. Even so, Owen Teale managed to show us his character’s naivety, and the way he was manoeuvred into the affair by a scheming woman. Oliver Cotton’s Jim came across like an enthusiastic puppy to begin with, and their interactions were very funny. Zoë Wanamaker was brilliant at both the comedy and the suffering, and Samantha Bond matched her perfectly, though her character Nell was less into suffering and more into making the bastard pay. Just like Agnes, a refreshingly candid and bitter ex-wife, whose desire for revenge on the husband-stealer led to the discovery of the love-letter. Sian Thomas did a lovely job with Agnes, while Annabel Scholey filled the role of husband-stealer to perfection, with or without clothes. I’m glad I saw the play, glad I don’t have to spend time with any of the people in it.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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