FLORIAN Zeller is a hugely successful playwright who recently had three of his plays on stage in London all at the same time.
His work never makes for easy viewing. Apart from his liking for tackling issues such as dementia and sexual transgression, there are times when his work leaves the audience confused. Are you watching reality or life as it appears in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s?
His latest offering, The Height Of The Storm, is as demanding as it is exhilarating. Confusing, at least to begin with, but ultimately rewarding. Poignant and rather sad by the end. Helped in no part by fine performances from Jonathan Pryce (Andre, the father) and Eileen Atkins (Madeleine, the mother).
The play, directed by Jonathan Kent, is set in the French home of Andre and Madeleine where the previous night a mighty storm raged. It opens with daughter Anne (a haughty, bossy Amanda Drew) and Andre in the kitchen. Andre is monosyllabic. Anne, visiting for the weekend, is in motor-mouth mode. Flowers arrive from a mystery sender. The conversation turns to what Andre is going to do with the house now he is alone. Loss is in the air.
But Madeleine and second daughter Elise (a striking and feisty Anna Madeley) then arrive. Madeleine is armed with the mushrooms Andre so much enjoys her cooking. Elise is distracted by phone calls from her latest boyfriend Paul (James Hillier). Her love life is somewhat confused.
Slowly but surely, the penny drops. The audience is viewing two stories: reality and the life as seen through Andre’s confused mind. He is desperately clinging onto the fact that his 50 year relationship with Madeleine is still bubbling along very nicely thank you.
No one is prepared to challenge Andre and tell him what he refuses to accept. The closest we get is from Paul in the brief moment he is not on his phone trying to conclude property deals (he is a dreaded estate agent).
Elise and Anne squabble as sisters do while a mystery woman (a luscious Lucy Cohu) comes to the house. Did she have an affair with Andre? Did she have his child? Is she someone else? The plot thickens, especially when Anne uncovers a private – and revealing – diary that Andre kept when he was a successful writer.
‘What would I do without you?’ Andre asks Madeleine in the play’s dying embers. ‘What would become of me without you?’ ‘Don’t worry, here I am,’ responds Madeleine. ‘I’ll always be here.’ Mind over matter.
An emotional end to a blistering play. With Pryce and Atkins in fine form, The Height Of The Storm will surely be a West End hit when it arrives at Wyndham’s Theatre in London on October 2.
Two final observations. One, Atkins’ use of the ‘f’ word is a magic moment (how unbecoming). Two, the few seconds between scenes – when the curtain came down – stirred the audience into brief conversation. ‘What the hell is going on?’ was the general consensus. ‘The evolving of a bloody good play’ came back the answer. The height of good theatre.
The Height Of The Storms runs at the Richmond Theatre until 8 September.
Title photo by Helen Maybanks