FLORIAN Zeller’s The Forest is as absorbing a play as you will find in London this year – awash as it currently is with musicals.
It’s complex, toys with your mind and some of it is unfathomable. But that’s why it is so brilliant. It’s a play – translated into English by long-term collaborator Christopher Hampton – that you could discuss at a dinner party and be still debating when the dessert wine has long been poured. Theatre at its very best. An acknowledgment that mainstream theatre is back post lockdowns – and magnificently so.
It helps that the play’s staging is wonderful, with the stage divided into three rooms. The lounge of man (Pierre) and wife (Laurence); the bedroom of Pierre’s girlfriend; and a third room that doubles up as Pierre’s office (he’s an accomplished surgeon) and maybe his conscience.
The play flicks from room to room, with the lounge or bedroom plunged into darkness when the focus lies elsewhere. But by the end, the ‘office’ and the other rooms start connecting. The momentum never stops, like an oncoming avalanche, drawing you in like a magnet.
Although the play starts with the break-up of a relationship between the doctor’s daughter (played by Millie Brady) and her young man (Eddie Toll), it’s the doctor (played by both Toby Stephens – Man 1 – and Paul McGann, Man 2) who lies at the play’s heart.
It’s Pierre’s infidelity that we examine and the damage it has done to his daughter, his stoic wife (a marvellously controlled Gina McKee), his young girlfriend (a quite brilliant Angel Coulby) and most of all himself. It’s his conflicted mind – the forest? – we see through various spectrums. Hence his split self, his split personality, hence Man 1 and 2.
For the most part, his girlfriend smoulders in bed, acknowledging the wonderful sex they enjoy, but wanting so much more. She’s like a coiled spring – one that Pierre cannot control. He wants his cake and eat it.
There are random phone calls to Pierre’s home. Doorbells are rung, but nobody is there when the door is opened. And then there are the flowers which keep coming and coming, turning the lounge by the end into a Dutch flower market. They are piled inside the sideboard cabinet. Bouquets everywhere. Who are they from? What do they represent?
Pierre is compromised on so many levels – work as well as in his personal life. Looming large in his mind is a rather sinister and creepy Man in Black (an excellent Finbar Lynch) who questions him at every opportunity. He’s like a ghost – his face is a brilliant white – and at times he is seen as one of Pierre’s work colleagues (Silas Carson). His male work colleague is someone Pierre confides in and invites round to his house with his partner (Sakuntala Ramanee).
The girlfriend appears to have come to a sticky end as she is seen lying on her bed, her top dripping with blood. Was she murdered? If so, by whom? Did the Man in Black have a part to play in her demise? Did Pierre do the deed or did the girlfriend choose suicide over starting a new life in Berlin? Questions, questions and more questions. Zeller, Zeller and Zeller.
There are so many excellent touches in this play – from the red sweater and white mask Pierre is seen wearing at the end (referenced earlier in the play) to the painting that hangs on the lounge wall and which turns by the end into a painting of the girlfriend. She also appears to him as an apparition. Can Pierre never escape her?
And then there is Laurence who remains calm right until the end when she reveals what she really thinks about her befuddled husband. Breath-taking theatre
Having seen all of Zeller’s plays that have come to the UK – The Height of the Storm ( https://closeupculture.com/2018/09/04/the-height-of-the-storm-review/ ), The Son (https://closeupculture.com/2019/02/27/the-son-theatre-review/ ), The Truth and the trilogy The Mother, The Father, The Son – this is on a par.
In short, a wonderful theatre (Hampstead in North London), a superb production (directed with aplomb by Jonathan Kent), a scintillating cast and marvellous set design (Anna Fleischle). What more could you ask for?
While this play will annoy some critics, my view is simple. The more of Zeller that you absorb, the more you want – and the more you understand that you will never quite get inside his head. That’s his magic.
The Forest runs until March 12.
Title image by The Other Richard