The National Theatre's production of Mappa Mundi unfortunately lost its star Ian Holm the week before it was originally due to premiere. But now that it has finally opened (for a much curtailed run of less than a month), Shelagh Stephenson's play turns out to lose its way, and its point, long before the end.
While The Memory of Water established Stephenson's credentials as a deeply sensitive, poetically driven recorder of the minute tensions and hostilities that simmer within a family dealing with the death of a matriarch, Mappa Mundi rewrites that plot with a dying father. Here, gathered around Alun Armstrong's 72-year-old Jack - the role originally to have been played by Holm - are his adult children, Michael and Anna.
Michael (Tim McInnerny) is a 45-year-old divorced, lonely actor; Anna (Lia Williams) is a 40-year-old lawyer, busily planning her wedding to fellow lawyer Sholto (Patrick Robinson). Also in the frame: a kindly neighbourhood priest Father Ryan (James Hayes), who loses his faith; and Sholto's mother Portia (Alibe Parsons), both of them guiding Jack's lost soul on its journey towards death.
Though there's no doubting Stephenson's ability to conjure character, the thoughts and feelings she ascribes to them have a tendency to seem imposed rather than felt. It's the Stoppard problem where the density of the language comes from the author, not the characters; and there's also the same problem of feeling rather too pleased with the result. (Stephenson so likes the sound of one of her lines for Jack - "I started out as a particle, travelled as a wave, and I'll arrive as a particle - that she has him say it three times).
Also refrained throughout the piece are Jack's observations, "I didn't make much of a mark", "I thought my life would be more than that", and "Is that all there is?" Stephenson conveys well the aching loss of realising, as a person nears the end of their life, that they've not exactly fulfilled their potential or made much of their allotted time, but there isn't much evidence that Armstrong's former book-keeper (who hankered after the applause of being an opera singer) might have done things any differently.
Bill Alexander's indulgent production is more than doubled in size by a dance ensemble, plus musicians, who arrive to provide a wedding dance. Like so much in the play, it feels forced, rather than natural.