Is Heroes the new Art? It’s also got a one-word title; it’s another established boulevard hit from Paris, again now translated by a leading English playwright (swap Christopher Hampton for Tom Stoppard), likewise directed by a hotshot young director (exchange Matthew Warchus for Thea Sharrock) and produced by David Pugh (who, after the success of Art that subsequently transferred to Broadway, now also has the powerful Shubert Organisation joining him above the title).
It, too, revolves around the friendship of three men, one of whom is – again - being played by Ken Stott (who even has a scene-stealing entrance to compare with the moment he owned in the earlier play) and is similarly played out in an interval-free 90 minutes. And the whole thing is being done again at Wyndham’s Theatre (albeit now under new ownership).
But there the comparisons must stop. If Art was an elegantly crafted study of a crisis of friendship that revolved around a seemingly blank canvas, this time it’s the play that fires blanks. And if it was once famously said of another French classic, Waiting for Godot, that it was a play in which nothing happened twice, Heroes is a play in which nothing much happens at all.
Here, as three veterans living out their days in a military hospital – who have been there for respectively 25 years, ten years and six months - convene daily on a walled terrace fringed by a line of trees, they pass their time, and ours, in rueful chatter and petty disagreements. All too predictably, it starts with reflections on the weather; if you hope for more originality to their conversational patter later on, you hope in vain.
Proceeding dully via the detailed recording of the everyday dramas of the birthdays and deaths of fellow residents, and a new arrival of a patient who shares the same birthday as one of them, we are meanwhile supposed to slowly build up our affection and interest in their characters through the quaint foibles they expose to each other, such as the penchant of Stott’s Philippe to pass out without warning, owing to a piece of shrapnel that became embedded in his head, from which he always rouses with the cry, “We’ll take them from the rear, captain”.
The eventual pay-off of this joke is hardly worth waiting for. But the casting, at least, keeps us awake if not actively engaged. Joining Stott are two of our most eccentrically individual actors, Richard Griffiths and John Hurt (only Edward Fox can beat them in the oddness stakes). The combination of their bluff and bluster – Griffiths like a huge walrus, Hurt like an elegant whippet – keeps the play buoyant. Stott is once again cast as a kind of go-between: “Don’t make me take sides – I can’t stand it!”, he cries, in an almost identical echo of his predicament in Art.
But even if the laughs flow freely in Stoppard’s translation, it doesn’t add up to much. While a stone statue of a dog makes an improbable fourth character, it’s the only one that isn’t barking here.
- Mark Shenton