Duke of York’s Theatre
6th July, 2013 matinee
Peter Nichols’ work has recently had a resurgence with a major London revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and a West End revival of Privates on Parade at the start of 2013. David Leveaux’s production of Passion Play, considered to be a part of an unofficial trilogy of adultery plays along with Pinter’s Betrayal and Stoppard’s The Real Thing, is superbly powerful and hotly intense.
Modern art restorer James (Owen Teale) and choral singer Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) are a happily-married, middle-aged couple until James starts sleeping with the much younger Kate, who has a reputation of stealing older men from their marriages. The plot seems relatively straight forward but Nichols fully explores the benefits, traumas and effects of infidelity. The comfort of the couple’s somewhat stylish life is reflected in Hildegard Betchler’s sophisticated, blank canvas design. In fact, it is even posed that their life could be dull and that an affair brings excitement. The frivolity of sex seems integral, as it is not that James finds Kate more attractive or better in bed than Eleanor but that it is just the fact that she is new that entices him, thus signalling the potential boredom of monogamy.
James’ and Eleanor’s inner thoughts are presented on stage in the form of Jim (the very funny Oliver Cotton) and Nell (the brilliant Samantha Bond). It is interesting how Wanamaker and Bond have the same wigs whereas Cotton’s and Teale’s physical differences perhaps are a nod to the idea that James sees himself as taller and with more hair than in reality. Some may see the device of alter egos as gimmicky but it adds humour and depth through exploring inner and outer selves to the extent that they disagree with themselves in terms of what they say and think. In fact, the device is at its most devastating when we see how different the public and private self can be. When Eleanor finds out about James’ affair via a letter given to her by the bitter Agnes (Sian Thomas), who was cheated on by her late husband by the same femme fatale, Nell is distraught and bemuses ‘my world’s caved in and I’m sitting here’ while Eleanor stays sat in silence, eyes glazed with tears, trying to uphold some sense of pride. Her later anger is seen in some arguably misandric lines when Nell exclaims over the ‘camaraderie of cock. How they all stand together – literally, while women can’t trust each other’. Coming from a male writer, these lines could seem shocking but overall have the effect of fully showing the emotions experienced when being betrayed. Some provocative language could be seen as getting cheap laughs but words such as ‘slag, fuck, bang’ followed by ‘love’ emphasises how love can be seen as a dirty and overused word.
Leveaux’s fast-paced production has scenes punctuated with bursts of loud classical music. The high culture of the couple’s life is undoubtedly a metaphor for something bigger, but what is more interesting is the subtlety of the importance of style and culture in the play. James’ occupation is signalled by him wearing a paintbrush in his trouser pocket but I can’t help but wonder if the joke ‘is that a paintbrush in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’ was ever said in rehearsal. The music reminds the audience of Eleanor’s job singing in choirs, which at one point is heard on the radio so that James and Kate can check how much time they have left together in bed. James’ job as an art restorer sees him having to paint over mistakes or stains as he does when lying to his wife, but the symbolism is so much more enjoyable by it not being totally obvious.
Eleanor discovers the affair in act one which allows Nichols to carry on digging with its effects in act two. It is also excellent of him to steer away from any gender stereotypes when it’s revealed that Eleanor has not been completely faithful in the past and that if James did have an affair she would have wanted it to be kept ‘dark’. The last moments of act one see Eleanor and James kissing and about to make love as Nell viciously screams ‘I love him’, thus backing up Eleanor’s action as an act that says ‘he’s mine’.
The second act starts with Eleanor accepting that Kate’s just a bit on the side and even taking part in a lesbian kiss after it is revealed that Kate likes Eleanor as well. At this point, Wanamaker’s cross-eyed reaction is hilarious while Nell bluntly wonders her darker, truer thoughts with ‘What, she’s a lesbian now?’ The laidback attitude perhaps seems a surprising plot choice, thus seeming confusing and problematic and therefore pre-empting the suspiciousness and unhappiness to which infidelity ultimately leads.
The subsequent nightmare scene which sees Eleanor seeing flashing cameras and Jim kissing several other women encompasses all of her worries in a simple, satisfyingly theatrical way, with Wanamaker coming so far downstage when snapping out of this dream that it makes the front row concerned. At the performance I attended, a champagne glass fell to the floor and smashed in this sequence, which I thought was appropriately part of it until a pause much later in the act when it was swept up by James made me wonder otherwise. After the nightmare, we see Eleanor and Jim talking to each other more, perhaps to signify how it is James’ true feelings speaking. Unfairly, he blames her ‘paranoia’ on the menopause and recommends she sees a doctor even though she is right to be suspicious. Eleanor, who ponders the ease of what it would be like to be the mistress, doesn’t want to be the other woman and her breakdown and suicide attempt (as portrayed by Nell) suggest the physical effects of heartbreak and emotional distress.
Eleanor officially realises that Kate is still seeing James when Kate lets slip too much information about going away with James. While Eleanor stays reminiscing on her honeymoon in Zurich hiding her true anger and upset, her inner self Nell stands there shaking and crying and smoking a cigarette, which makes for a powerful image. And for all of the arguing that Nell and Jim do, it is the stillness and distance that Eleanor and James demonstrate on the same couch that really conveys how it is those silences that are just as much part of a breakup as the rows. It is without a doubt that Passion Play could potentially be an uncomfortable play to watch.
Further truths are yet to be told when Eleanor says how men see women as ‘without periods, pregnancy. Pornography. Violets without bruises’. It is a striking, hallmark line on the objectification of women but is perhaps not as powerful as James’ line when looking down at an unconscious Nell to say quite truthfully ‘you may not never hear this, but at that moment I hated you for the first and last time’. Teale’s brilliant timbre with a hint of Welsh makes this line extremely memorable, along with ‘I didn’t want anyone to die for me’ which exemplifies both a self-hatred and self-centredness and shows the damage caused by infidelity.
In the end, Eleanor and James stay together but Nell leaves and it is strongly suggested that Jim still sees Kate thus implying that Eleanor and James have become just shadows absent of any inner truth or commitment to each other – a sad truth that is perhaps resonant with many audience members’ marriages. The last tableau sees a worried Eleanor (who physically hasn’t been the same since the overdose) sit helplessly while Kate is literally ‘fur coat, no knickers’ before dropping it with her back to the audience to let Jim kneel into a near-rapturous pose at the side of her. It prompts the audience to think back to the religious painting that James earlier restores, thus leaving us with a strong image that is theatrical and thought-provoking but without being too apparent or conclusive.
Zoe Wanamaker, one of my favourite actors, is utterly watchable, as is Samantha Bond, Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton. The attractive and brilliant Annabel Scholey plays the teasing younger woman perfectly without overdoing anything and ensuring she’s not just playing a type.
Lastly, it is perhaps amazing how a West End play can be produced with 5-6 principal cast members, four of whom are women and five of them are middle-aged. Considering there has been much recent press about a lack of roles for female actors of a certain age Passion Play should be seen as an achievement.
As an end thought, I am normally dissatisfied with the cost and thinness of ATG theatre programmes, however this one does contain an insightful Mark Lawson article and a frank Peter Nichols interview. I bought a £10 second row day seat for Passion Play in a house which sadly wasn’t sold out.
To conclude, this is an excellent cast in a brilliant production of a thoughtful and funny play. One of the signs of a great production is how certain nuances can makes you keep on delving into the play every time you think of it.
Passion Play plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3rd August, 2013.