The Unexpected Man, RSC at the Duchess Theatre
Note: This RSC production transferred to the Duchess 15 June 1998 following its original run at The Barbican Pit. Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon return to their roles.
You might not expect a two-hander where the characters don't even speak to one another until the final five minutes to be captivating, but The Unexpected Man is unexpectedly so. Or perhaps not so unexpectedly given its credentials - the winning Art team (playwright Yasmina Reza, translator Christopher Hampton and director Matthew Warchus) combined with the considerable acting talents of Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins.
A man and a woman - a novelist (Gambon) and his biggest fan (Atkins) - are both travelling through the ‘twilight of life on their way from Paris to Frankfurt. She's got his latest book, The Unexpected Man of the title, in her bag but is too embarrassed to read it and too nervous to approach him, as she is dying to do. Through a series of internal monologues, we read their thoughts on each other - making up outrageous stories as one is so inclined to do about strangers in public places - their journeys, their relationships and life in general.
On this last matter, the novelist's position is clear from his first internal utterance - “Bitter,” he says. “It's all so bitter.” Gambon wears his bitterness well as he contemplates the futility of his work, the emptiness of sex and the power of laxatives. Bitter, bored and belligerent but not yet broken, he intrigues but doesn't pull at the heart strings.
Certainly not like Atkins, whose desperate loneliness fills the stage. Her ache is deepened by the recent death of her friend Serge. “How to accept that somebody we loved is dead. How to accept that the world contains one less person to love us...” She stares into space, caught in her reminiscences, her voice snagging with emotion on several occasions - her pain is palpable.
As the monologues mount, so does the frustration. It becomes evident to the audience that these two characters could help to fill the holes in one another's lives. But, shackled by their apprehensions, will they miss the opportunity? Will they speak and connect? Will the fan find the solace she derives from her books in the man who wrote them? Will he prove to be as trustworthy a confidante and companion in real life as he is in her imagination? Will they ever bloody speak?
In this clever script, there are no pat answers to any but the last question. We are however left with a final humorous jab of hope and plenty to ponder. Would our own continuous reel of private thoughts make for such compelling drama? Doubtful, unless your name is Yasmina Reza.
Terri Paddock, April 1998
The following WOS reviewer had this to add following the press night at the Duchess Theatre...
'The Art-lessness of The Unexpected Man'
When the RSC's production of The Unexpected Man transferred to the Duchess Theatre, it showed every sign of becoming every bit as hot a ticket as the early months of Art.
But why? While I don't argue that this is quality theatre, the enthusiastic hype around author Yasmina Reza may obscure the possibility that the piece isn't all it's been cracked up to be in reviews like the one above and elsewhere.
Let me explain. First, The Unexpected Man is short. Lunchtime theatre short. Officially said to be 80 minutes long, it clocked in at closer to 70 minutes on press night. Of course, length isn't any indicator of value for money, but at West End prices, it's a pricey way to pay for the privilege of seeing two fine actors.
Then, consider what the production looks like. What we have is an intimate two-hander by a French author. Expecting something Beckett like? With the stage's transparent false floor and eccentric lighting, The Unexpected Man looks more like Starlight Express before the cast's turned up.
Thirdly, there's the pairing of Sir Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins. Gambon is a big man with a big voice and a booming, Wolfit-style command of the space. Atkins just doesn't have that degree of presence. What's more, she looks odd. Maybe it's to do with the way she's lit, perhaps it's the way she's dressed, but visually, it is hard to settle on what she's supposed to look like or even how old her character is supposed to be. With Gambon, it's simple - big, successful late middle-aged man in a suit. Easy. With Atkins, it should be as easy - middle-aged French woman, exuding chic. But it doesn't work that way.
Finally, while the text of The Unexpected Man has been widely praised, it's not very...well, French. It has a voice that's more Bennett than Beckett. To be sure, the text has some well-crafted and moving sections - especially the Atkins account of being left by a long-time platonic lover - but it's more in the great tradition of BBC Radio 4 short stories than real Gallic insights into the human condition.
Don't let me deter you, though. Go to The Unexpected Man to see what all the fuss is about. Then make up your own mind.
Roger Green, June 1998