Making his return to the West End stage after a long absence, Jeremy Irons broke the usual curtain call rules on the opening night of his chosen vehicle – Christopher Hampton's new play, Embers based on Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai's long-forgotten 1940s novel - by congratulating his producer, Eric Abraham, on his "virgin voyage" in the West End.
"I hope this will be the first of many such first nights," said Irons to much applause from his fans and the first night freeloaders, after what I have to confess seemed to me more like a modest maiden aunt of an evening than a play with anything fresh or enticing to say about the human condition. Indeed Irons' character, Henrik, a seventy-something retired general and bearded relic of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire who lives in a remote mountain castle near Vienna, came across as a male Miss Haversham - a rigid old duffer who has spent decades refusing to let go of the memory of a moment in his youth back in the summer of 1899 when he discovered evidence of his wife's adultery with his best friend, Konrad.
Unfortunately Hampton's snoring page-to-stage translation of Henrik's wasted life only goes to show why Márai's original novel probably ended up in a remainder bin in down-town Budapest. By 1942, when the play is set, we’re expected to believe that after her frolic with Konrad, Henrik never spoke to his wife ever again before she died 30 years ago and that he has waited all these years to drag his former rival in love half-way across war-torn Europe to prise the truth of the affair out of him.
What eventually emerges after a rather rickety start, during which Irons seemed about as unsure of his lines as a virgin in a brothel, is a kind of one-sided conversation piece, mostly delivered in the past tense, with the lion's share delivered by Irons, leaving Patrick Malahide's Konrad - clearly not imperial officer material because as a young man he ran away to live in the tropics, played seductive Chopin preludes on the piano and filled his home with beautiful objects - sitting in a leather armchair sipping after-dinner brandy, puffing a large cigar and reacting with deadpan silence to his former best friend unpicking the fine detail of the betrayal.
For those academically minded folk who find such things exciting, there are a few good lines capturing the chaos of post-World War One Europe, including a nice one about Vienna being the "tuning fork of the universe", but not enough of them to capture any emotional chaos that might be stirring within boring old Henrik's shrivelled heart. Irons articulates the old soldier's endless questioning with his usual cut-glass English diction, but even sporting a manicured grey beard, he's more like one might imagine Rupert Everett's dad would look and sound rather than an elderly man close to death's door, while you can only feel sympathy for Malahide having nothing much to do but nod and smile every now and then.
- Roger Foss