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The Forest review – Florian Zeller returns with a gripping affair

Toby Stephens, Paul McGann, Gina McKee and Angel Coulby lead the cast of the Hampstead Theatre world premiere

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Toby Stephens and Finbar Lynch
© The Other Richard

In the plays of Florian Zeller, nothing is quite as it seems. Beneath the surface of respectable middle-class family life, emotions and delusions bubble and boil. What seems like a perfect picture of reality, fractures into many shards.

The works for which the French dramatist is best known – The Father, The Mother and The Son – featured a man with dementia, a woman with depression, and a teenager on the edge of a breakdown. In each case, scenes were repeated with slightly different emphasis, a psychological state recreated through subtle shifts and twists in the narrative action.

Zeller is up to similar games in The Forest – the first of his works to be premiered in English, translated by his long-time collaborator Christopher Hampton. Here, the very nature of truth itself appears to be under the microscope. The question "Do you tell the truth?" runs through the opening scenes like a repeated refrain.

The set-up couldn't be more naturalistic. Pierre comes home to his wife Laurence (Gina McKee) and their immaculate Parisian home to discover that their daughter has left her boyfriend, because she cannot forgive the fact that he is having an affair. Pierre's reaction is strangely muted, and we quickly discover why. But the cast list indicates a more schematic state of affairs: there is Man 1 and Man 2; both are Pierre and they are played by two different actors, Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, who are both having an affair with Girlfriend, played by Angel Coulby.

There's also a sinister Man in Black (Finbar Lynch) who may or may not represent Death, and the place we appear to be living is inside the Man's anxious mind as the pressure of his lying shatters him to the point where he is lost in a forest of desire, murder and madness, while his wife looks on with semi-comprehending sympathy.

Or it may all be real, and Lynch (sinister and excellent) may in fact be a policeman or a psychiatrist. All this confusion and slipperiness is reflected in Anna Fleischle's sleek set, which creates three rooms for different encounters across the Hampstead stage. Even the interior design is subject to change: the main room (Pierre's flat) gradually fills with flowers as a painting turns into a sensual recreation of the mistress.

As scenes repeat, with different emphasis, and characters slide from one setting to another with different intent, there is a strong whiff of the psychological thriller, not to mention Fatal Attraction since in one version of events the girlfriend becomes a distinct bunny boiler, making anonymous phone calls and threatening to expose the man to his wife. She also takes on the persona of Banquo's Ghost, appearing as a blood smeared presence in his living room.

It's all clever and quite intriguing, but it's not that deep. The idea that an affair is the ultimate betrayal both of others and self is hardly revelatory, even if the way the notion is worked out here is unusual. The parts of the women are also, oddly for Zeller who has created memorably rich female characters, incredibly underwritten so both fall into stereotype with sensual Coulby gratuitously (briefly) topless, and McKee stuck in frozen understanding.

Still, at 80-minutes [[The Forest[[ doesn't linger long enough for you to lose interest. Jonathan Kent directs with a cool elegance, coaxing the anxiety that lies beneath to the surface of Stephens' performance while letting McGann remain more impassive and unreadable. It's gripping enough, but not vintage Zeller.