The frailties of the ageing mind is a subject that troubles us enough to explore its effects through art – you only have to look to the perennial interest in how our leading actors tackle the 400-year-old King Lear as an example. Not often, though, is it done in a way that never loses sight of the underlying dignity of the subject, even when engulfed by their most confounding fog.
For someone who, by their own admission, ’discovered theatre almost by accident’, French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller has earned a reputation for depicting infirmity with honesty and sensitivity while also giving us a glimpse into what it might feel like. His award-winning The Father put the audience into the mind of someone suffering with Alzheimer’s, and he has returned to the theme in his latest play.
The Height Of The Storm, translated by regular collaborator Christopher Hampton, is a first-class piece of writing, and a compelling family drama.
Novelist André and his wife Madeleine have eased into old age in their 50 years together. Their home has that lived-in comfort that comes only from decades of gentle wear – the shelves and counters are laden with the accumulated ornaments of their shared life. It’s the morning after a raging storm, and their adult daughters, Anne and Elise, are staying for the weekend. A seemingly ordinary, humdrum visit, there is nevertheless an underlying air of discontent. Something’s not right, though the explanation for it is always tantalisingly just beyond mention.
As husband and wife, Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins are exquisite. If they themselves occupied the large house, several shelves would need to be cleared to make space for their combined seven Olivier and Tony awards. After these superb performances, they may have to make a little more room.
From the outset you’re never quite sure what is real and what might be a trick of an unreliable mind – an echo of the past or an imagined future. Why is Anne taking on the task of going through André’s old papers and diaries, and just who is ‘the lady” coming for tea who claims to be a friend from his past? It’s as if someone has removed the bubble from the spirit level; you’re never sure whether you’re on even ground. The effect leaves you as disoriented as André, drawing you closer to his confusing plight.
Atkins’s Madeleine is perfect in every detail as the wife whose understated strength and solidity is often overlooked by those around her. She draws the composed character so vividly that, when her fierceness is forced to the fore, you’re as taken aback as those on stage. Pryce manages to evocatively convey André’s internal confusion. You can feel his palpable frustration at stretching for things he can’t quite grasp, and when he tips over into unbridled anger, you sense it’s more from fear than rage.
There’s fine support from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley as the daughters shouldering difficult and emotional responsibilities. But my strongest praise is for the leading couple. Their final scene is one of the most touching and moving I’ve seen stage.
The Height of the Storm ends on 1st December 2018 at Wyndham’s Theatre. Tickets are available to buy here.