“That’s what men want to hear…pornography”
The trio of recent major Peter Nicholls revivals is completed with this West End run of Passion Play. But where Privates on Parade and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg thoroughly charmed me with their insights into his back catalogue, this play felt much less like a vibrant piece of interesting theatre and more of a dated portrayal of marriage and infidelity which, despite its technical innovation, emerges as an awkward example of middle-aged male wish fulfilment (credit to @pcchan1981 for coming up with the phrase!). This is somewhat compounded by the direction of David Leveaux which brings a lascivious, almost voyeuristic sheen that feels way too retrogressive for this day and age.
Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy here as well, not least in the sumptuous luxury of Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond playing the outer and inner voices of the same character. That woman is Eleanor, who finds her marriage of 25 years to James, Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton taking on the two sides of this man, challenged by the arrival of the seductive and much younger Kate. And through the device of the alter egos, we see how the corrosive onset of infidelity affects this couple both publicly in their interactions but also privately as their innermost thoughts are given voice.
It’s an initially intriguing device. Cotton confirms the assumption that our internal monologues are much funnier than our outward selves and contrasts well against the angst-ridden Teale, calling into question just how genuine his anguish might be. And Wanamaker’s exquisitely painful unravelling is further expressed by Bond’s eloquent frankness. As the play progresses, the boundaries between the selves become increasingly blurred but to no substantive effect than to muddy the narrative clarity, perhaps overcompensating for the lack of any real meaningful insight.
More problematic is the character of Kate. Annabel Scholey saunters excellently as this predatory sex kitten who has a history of chasing married men, but as Nicholls denies her an inner voice, there is no complexity to the role, no investigative depth. Matters are then exacerbated by Leveaux treating her as a sex object with some of the most gratuitous stage nudity I’ve seen for a long time, sadly reinforcing the shallowness of the writing of someone who is meant to be a key driver of the action of the play.
Hildegard Bechtler’s coolly elegant set looks perfect and somehow manages to evoke this soullessness well. The pulsating shards of classical music that punctuate scenes feel a little overemphatic though, trying to stir passions that very much lay dormant for me. From the bargainous £10 seats on the third row of the stalls, it was as ever a pleasure and privilege to watch the acting, especially of Wanamaker and Bond but given its predominantly salacious feel, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it too strongly.