Tricycle Theatre, London – until 5 March 2016
THE EMPTY NEST, THE TROUBLED MIND
Hold tight. It’s the French genius litterateur Florian Zeller messing with our heads again. We are confused, wary, deceived and unsettled by the tricks of emotional distress and delusion, imaginary conversations which might be real, and real ones reimagined, all in a bleak white space.
Gina McKee is a mother in her forties: sulky and resentful, desolate and impossible, demanding and lost and provocative and depressed and increasingly crazy. We first meet her when her husband – Richard Clothier, businesslike and weary, comes home talking about a seminar in Leicester he is to lead at the weekend. We learn that she is depressed, obsessively missing her adult son Nicholas and resenting his girlfriend; that life seems to her to cheat women, as now the children are grown she is lonely and unoccupied, pitying herself because “you all leave, after using me up”.
So far, so familiar. We have all heard the plaints of unimaginative mothers about the empty nest which they somehow never foresaw. But this one is shot through with flickers of oddity: vicious asides, startling admissions that she never liked her daughter, only the son, and thinks her husband is having affairs. The same scene recurs, only with differences; suddenly we are unsure how much of it is real, how much in her head.
The son returns – William Postlethwaite, lanky and sullen and oppressed, and she is sometimes cooingly maternal, sometimes unnervingly flirtatious, sometimes worryingly dotty. The husband’s departure for his seminar recurs, sometimes fulfilling her suspicions, sometimes not. The absent girlfriend appears. But she is also the father’s secretary, the absent daughter, a nurse: all young and therefore threatening. There is a red dress which two characters wear at once. Time sllps and slithers. Sometimes characters say things – or seem to – with startling violence. The suggestion hovers (possibly just in her mind, but who knows?) that the best gift a young man can give his lover is matricide: putting an end to the incubus who bore him.
McKee, ever more lost, seems to hear a mocking young female voice: “You will grow old on your own, unhappy and alone”. But what with the blackouts and the jangling noises of memory, children’s voices, a school bell, discordant piano (Jon Nicholls’ sound design), we are not sure we anyone, other than her own brain, says it.
It was the gallant little Tricycle which brought in – from the Bath Ustinov – Florian Zeller’s The Father: a devastating, wilfully confusing portrayal (one could almost say, a shared experience) of dementia: a pure stark use of theatre demonstrating how it might be to live from minute to minute unsure of who is who and how much of it all is inside your head. Since then, Kenneth Cranham’s unforgettable performance has moved into the West End and gathered more five-star excitement: now the Trike brings us this, which Zeller wrote two years earlier. Again Christopher Hampton translates, and we can observe in another 90-minute tour de force how the playwright’s technique of alienation was being refined. So Zeller-minded has London theatre become that his latest is due to premiere soon in the Menier. His talent is a more than welcome revelation.
box office 020 7328 1000 to 5 March