Writer: Florian Zeller
Director: Jonathan Kent
Translator: Christopher Hampton
After the-more-miss-than-hit Classics seasons to celebrate its 60 years, it’s good to see the main stage at Hampstead once again presenting new work. And not just any new work, but the world premiere of a new play by Florian Zeller, the writer of The Father, which was, of course, adapted into the film that scored Anthony Hopkins his second Oscar. However, while The Forest is dazzlingly theatrical it is also stunningly old-fashioned.
Surgeon Pierre comes home to find that his daughter has left her boyfriend. While searching through her boyfriend’s coat pockets she has come across a love letter from another woman attesting that the affair has lasted months. Pierre suggests that his daughter forgive her errant boyfriend. He surmises that the affair doesn’t mean anything. It’s just what men do. Pierre seems to be talking from experience.
Above the stage we see another affair going on between an older man and a shop assistant. He’s married. She knows this but wants more. She wants to spend a whole night with him. She wants him to tell his wife. It comes as a surprise to find out that his name is also Pierre, and we are witnessing another version of the same surgeon.
Soon the two Pierres become interchangeable. When played by Toby Stephens, Pierre is almost a sympathetic character, despite his weakness and fecklessness. When played by Paul McGann, Pierre is incredibly distant and aloof. His accent is more posh than Stephens’s, and yet he is nervous and jittery. Stephens’s performance is naturalistic, but McGann’s performance is strange and draws the audience away from the familiar story about marital infidelity.
However, both Pierres are expert are putting on their socks while standing up, and neither even betrays a wobble. They are two sides of the one man perhaps both existing in a multiverse. A less extreme version of Jekyll and Hyde, a dual identity, that is mirrored in that of his friend but here the differences are more stark. Most of the time and when played by Silas Carson this friend seems decent enough, but when he is played by Finbar Lynch this friend is more sinister. He now talks in an American accent and his face is painted white like death or retribution.
But the women don’t have alter egos. They are purely themselves. They are either victims or downtrodden wives. Surely Gina McKee was expecting a meatier role when she signed up for the new Zeller play? As Pierre’s wife, she is too dutiful to search her husband’s coat pockets. She may think about it, but she already knows what she will find. McKee has little else to do but watch her marriage crumble.
Like Constellations, various outcomes are offered, but the one given most time seems a little too melodramatic. Fortunately, Anna Fleischle’s triple-staged set, coated in shades of pinks and greens, makes the melodrama exciting especially when the three stages are used simultaneously and underscored by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design. This theatricality could never be captured on screen.
Running at 90 minutes, The Forest is always entertaining and intriguing and everyone will have their own theory as to what is really is going on. But ultimately this is another play about men, and their self-destructive tendencies.
Runs until 12 March 2022