Florian Zeller’s latest production on the West End offers many layers for audiences to peel away at, writes Laura Plumley
The Height of the Storm opens to gentle, melancholic music by composer Gary Yershon. The curtain rises to reveal a typical French kitchen-dining room with sun streaming through the huge windows, reflecting the brightness of the day after the previous night’s storm. André (Jonathan Pryce) stares out of the window, lost in his own thoughts, as his daughter Anne bustles in, talking incessantly to her father.
She is as nervous as he is still. Everything she says washes over him. She is trying to make sense of a terrible reality, learned from just-discovered secrets. As yet, the audience are mere voyeurs. There are many layers to be peeled away throughout this play.
The beauty of this production is how effortlessly we are treated to vignettes of this family’s life, which then merge seamlessly into moments of the present. Many of these moments which appear to be in the present, turn out to be a memory. The essence of Florian Zeller’s play is in coming to terms with death, dementia and coping with the resurrection of secrets.
However, not all is clear at the beginning and throughout the play, we are required to piece together its various elements. Zeller’s idea of the theatre rings true for this play when he says: ‘For me, theatre is….the place for questions and not answers.’
The busy, yet domestic setting (designed by Anthony Ward) superbly describes the lifestyle of this family over decades. André has been a successful writer, hence the plethora of books on stage. In the study, a glimpse of which we have off the main room, books are crammed up to the enormously high ceiling, completely overwhelming the room.
His wife, Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) has obviously been his rock throughout the marriage, and has brought up their two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Anna Madeley). She is the central force in their lives and in this production. Madeleine has obviously had to deal with André’s onset of dementia with which she has coped, seemingly, supremely – but has rather excluded her daughters.
The intricacies of these relationships are played out perfectly as the characters interact. Gradually, and with utmost subtlety, the inevitable imbalances and petty niggles rise up through the pleasantries and domestic routines. The introduction of the two minor characters (Lucy Cohu), an old friend from Andre’s past, and Elise’s latest dreadful boyfriend (James Hillier), just adds further delicious intrigue to this family’s story.
To say that Atkins and Pryce are superb is an understatement. They are alone on stage in the final act and the intimacy of their 50 year old marriage is overwhelming. Pryce is utterly convincing as the elderly writer who has reigned more or less supreme (with the backing and support of his wife) for the years of his career, but who now has to deal with not only his ever growing dementia and the relinquishment of his status, but also with his tragic loss.
The play though, belongs to Atkins: her portrayal of Madeleine is sublime. She is Madeleine with all the history of that character in her being. She is the supportive but knowing wife, the fearless mother, and the patient carer.
Fittingly she delivers the last, candid words – be prepared to weep: ‘Life is terribly long. Sometimes it seems endless. When it does end, it can only be deliverance.’
The Height of the Storm closed in the West End at the end of last year, but will open on Broadway later this year.