Hampstead Theatre, London – until 12 March 2022
It has been an extraordinarily fruitful partnership between writer Florian Zeller and translator-playwright Christopher Hampton over the past few years with adaptations of Zeller’s disconnected family saga The Father, The Mother and The Son earning West End and Broadway transfers as well as film adaptations and an Oscar win for Antony Hopkins last year.
Having picked through its archive for the theatre’s 60th-anniversary celebrations extended by the pandemic, it is easy to forget what a force Hampstead Theatre still is in the selection and staging of new work. While premieres have recently been limited to the downstairs space, Zeller’s new play The Forest blazes into the main house with an extraordinary piece about infidelity, guilt and distorted reality.
Zeller’s plays are often quite slippery, playing with notions of truth, memory and fantasy as the protagonist’s fractured perception of the world is presented to the audience in jumbled scenes that merge time and reality. The Forest is predicated on an allegory, the story of a handsome prince lured deep into a forest by a stag, the thrill of the hunt driving him on. Only, as the creature disappears into the undergrowth, the prince is now beyond his own limits and very much out of his depth. Around this Zeller builds a tricksy but brilliantly realised tale of a surgeon needing to end a year-long affair with a younger woman who suddenly becomes too demanding, threatening to hijack his otherwise perfect life, long marriage and high-profile job with government links.
The very masculine desire to hunt and chase regardless of the consequences or morality of a situation is Zeller’s subject, bringing with it a personal self-destruction played out across a variety of complex, interconnected scenes taking place in three distinct performance spaces. And within Zeller’s play, there are both vertical and horizontal strands moving against one another to dislocate what we see and what we know to be true, giving the subject matter both a straight-forward and illusory quality.
The first of these is the well-to-do, though not extravagant, home that Pierre, the surgeon, shares with his wife in what seems to be a single evening, although these moments are spread out across the play. Arriving home to find his daughter has discovered her partner’s infidelity in a parallel subplot, Pierre and his wife welcome friends for dinner and later interact alone around these external arrivals. In a second area, Pierre’s relationship with his lover plays out in a bedroom that seems to be in a hotel of some kind and these scenes take place across an unclear time period but somewhere towards the end of their liaison as their conversations become increasingly fractious and her behaviour more emotional until the dark consequences of their affair are revealed – or are they? The final office location is a multifunctional space where Pierre speaks to outsiders about the things he may or may not have done; sometimes this is a tangible place like his friend’s office but other times this is a more representative no man’s land – in the Pinteresque sense – and quite who Pierre is interacting with and the power they wield begins to shift.
Having introduced these demarcated zones, Zeller then works across them to transform what would have otherwise been a quite basic infidelity drama into something far more conceptual and the same time considerably more potent. Characteristic of Zeller’s plotting, what and who we see is entirely open to debate and across this 90-minute piece, both Pierre as a character and the sequence of events are presented in quite different ways. Initially we see what appear to be two different men, one at home with his wife and, in a subsequent scene, another in bed with his mistress. As the second man dresses, it becomes apparent that they are connected by the exactly the same suit and distinct emerald tie, presenting the audience with one character in two guises.
This approach fills the rest of the play with both versions of Pierre appearing in scenes with the other characters, although notably not in the central domestic space in which Pierre 2 has only one late scene with his wife. Outside of this area, the two are interchangeable, leading us to question whether they are indeed the same man in parallel universes treading the same path in marginally different ways with the same outcome; are they instead two versions of the same man from within Pierre’s own consciousness – one the man he thinks he is and the other the version the world sees or is this a dreamscape in which Pierre 2 takes on the qualities of the dreamer as a not-quite-the-same-but-still-recognisable projection of himself, just as rooms may look different in dreams but you know them. Perhaps Zeller is suggesting a darker perspective, a duel personality where the proxy can do terrible things unrealised by the original or maybe one is the Prince of the forest allegory and the other the fatally flawed human reality. Whatever the answer, it is fascinating to explore and shakes up the deceptive simplicity of Zeller’s plot.
And yet the playwright is still not done with us and into the mix we get a number of repeated scenes that show us events from a different perspective, partly recasting what we have already seen by showing it again in the light of the knowledge we now have, but simultaneously moving the story along with additional information and insights that incrementally open up what really happened between Pierre and his lover. In these moments, Zeller doesn’t repeat dialogue exactly but there are snatches of conversation in the set scenario that tell us this is the same instance we have already seen that will end in the same place with some of the same words exchanged, yet the outcome is greater revelation.
Like the parallel Pierres to which this replay is connected, why becomes vital to unpicking the psychological construction of the story and into whose mind the audience is taken. Zeller leaves us to determine what is real and what may be a nightmare vision. Is Pierre a guilty man plagued by conscience and reliving terrible memories as a punishment for his actions or are the events of the play entirely in his mind, a projection of the problems in his daughter’s relationship manifested or hallucinated due to the stress of the important report Pierre had been working on for several weeks – the same time period when the final pressured days of the affair are supposed to have taken place. There is a key moment, so small you could almost lose it; early on Pierre’s son-in-law is said to have had an affair with a singer which is a profession that Pierre’s lover later claims for herself in a throwaway comment, so have these events overlapped or is it just a coincidence? Has Pierre done anything wrong or is mental surety crumbling under the pressure?
Thematically, Zeller’s approach draws on Pinter particularly in presenting an overlapping domestic and non-space dimension within the play where power and control slips away from the male protagonist and rests entirely in the hands of the women who surround him. In another casual revelation, Pierre’s wife is said to have funded his clinic which adds a different dimension to their marriage and his refusal to end it. Likewise, his lover’s continual threats and increasingly unstable behaviour become a challenge to Pierre’s status as an eminent surgeon and family man and it is her power, as well as the threat of his wife’s fury, that emasculates him and not only prevents Pierre from making a decision but it is something he actively hides from. Although the female characters are largely muted, there is quiet dignity and power in them; Pierre’s daughter leaves her unfaithful partner in all versions of their relationship and it is implied that his wife would leave him if she knew Pierre was cheating on her or at least if the affair was openly acknowledged. And it is his lover who holds Pierre’s future and possibly even his sanity in the palm of her hand while the man himself is powerlessly buffeted between these women.
Played by Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, Pierre is a complex and inconsistent creation. Stephens’s interpretation, who appears first and dominates the domestic space, is charming and believable as a powerful establishment figure but far more emotional, permanently on edge and watchful in case he slips up. Across the play, Stephens’s version begins to tear at himself, increasingly unable to hold his life together and struggling to bear the weight of his actions, or at least what he thinks he has done, opening up particularly to the friend he eventually confides in and the unnamed third man who may be a policeman, a therapist or some transcendental representative of Pierre’s conscience. Stephens is compelling as a man losing his grip on reality and lost in the forest, especially in a poignant speech about mask wearing, yet with a sharper tone on occasion, it is still believable that he may have gone too far.
McGann by contrast is a far darker presence from the start and the first Pierre we see with his lover. There is something aloof, even uncaring about him even in this first scene as he hastily gets dressed. Later, he is there when the outcomes of their relationship are discovered, a cool and unruffled figure, calmly accepting what he sees, even hinting at its necessity. McGann also suggests some frustration and fear in parallel conversations with Pierre’s friend but he remains a sinister figure, even a possible avenger as the two Pierres come face to face for a horrifying second.
For the play’s structure to work, it is essential that the female characters offer a steady state and Angel Coulby as the lover is entirely consistent in all scenarios, frustrated by the man she has been dating for so long and increasingly troubled by the distance he puts between them. Gina McKee on the surface has very little to do or say as Pierre’s wife yet she is the heart of the piece revealing so much about the life they share with just a flicker across her face. Without saying a word, we see she knows all too well what is happening in her marriage, choosing silence in the hope it will resolve itself but nonetheless deeply affected by the betrayal she experiences.
The Forest is beautifully staged by Director Jonathan Kent and the always inventive Designer Anna Fleischle who segments the stage into three irregularly-shaped boxes, moving the action inventively been the central stylish middle class living room, a multifunctional side office area and the heavily furnished bedroom placed on a platform above the stage, all places where versions of Pierre and his life exist side-by-side. Visually expressive and exciting to watch, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting brings each of these spaces to life momentarily – as Pierre says he can only give us moments – creating warmth, coldness and fear as the changing rhythms of the play both flow through and change the tone of these locations.
It really is such a fruitful partnership between Zeller and Hampton who has provided a effective and affecting translation of this play. The Forest still has a a week of previews before its official press night but is already compelling, puzzling and entirely engrossing. With new play Folk downstairs and now The Forest sure to earn further accolades, Hampstead Theatre has already produced two of the best new plays in 2022.
The Forest is at the Hampstead Theatre until 12 March with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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‘An extraordinary piece about infidelity, guilt & distorted reality’: THE FOREST – Hampstead Theatre
‘An extraordinary piece about infidelity, guilt & distorted reality’: @culturalcap1 on Florian Zeller’s latest play #TheForest, starring Toby Stephens, Paul McGann & Gina McKee at @Hamps_Theatre til 12 Mar. #HTForest #theatrereviews