The Height of the Storm
Richmond Theatre, 5th September 2018
I can’t deny that Florian Zeller is a gifted playwright. I am just not sure his work is for me. I saw The Father at this very house in 2016 with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role. Centering on an old fella with Alzheimers allowed Mr Zeller acres of space to deploy his trademark philosophical musings and play games with time and memory. Mr Cranham was great but all that deliberating about what you could and could not believe got a bit samey after a while.
Well he, and his translator Christopher Hampton, are at it again in The Height of the Storm. The nature of memory, the effects of ageing, the making of self, the cracks in a family, all are confronted again, but here set against a love story. Jonathan Pryce is Andre, a retired writer, who has been married to Madeleine, played by Eileen Atkins, for five decades. They live in a large country house in provincial France. Divorced daughter Annie (Amanda Drew) arrives for the weekend. It looks like she is pushing for the house to be sold. Later on younger daughter Elise (Anna Madeley) also pitches up with current estate agent boyfriend (James Hillier) in tow. A bunch of flowers is delivered. A neighbour and apparent long-standing “friend” of Andre played by Lucy Cohu pops in. But it isn’t very long before we begin to wonder if Madeleine is really there or whether disorientated Andre just imagines her presence and whether the cosy conversations they are having are simply the memories of his now dead wife. Or maybe it is the other way round?
Mr Zeller quite rightly recognises that theatre is all about suspending rationality and playing games with “truth”. And Height of the Storm certainly messes with your head. He writes beautifully but presenting such uncertainty made me, well, uncertain about whether this was entirely satisfying. However the play certainly creates an atmosphere. The set design of Anthony Ward, the kitchen of the family home, is exquisite. The lighting and sound designs of Hugh Vanstone and Paul Groothuis respectively are equally ravishing. Obviously director Jonathan Kent is exemplary – this sort of drama is his meat and drink. And I could watch Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins all day. Mr Pryce exactly shows us how Andre is lost without Madeleine and Ms Atkins in turn shows Madeleine’s fortitude. Florian Zeller was inspired to write the play when he saw an elderly couple cling together as they crossed a road from the window of a Paris hotel on the day of his own wedding. They had become “one being” and that is exactly what the play conjures up and these two masterly actors portray. The desolation of losing the one you love.
There is something powerful at work here and if you want to see two outstanding stage actors at the top of their game, (supported by excellent supporting performances), effortlessly directed then this is for you. At 90 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just be prepared though for that “what was going on there then” feeling as you leave.