Review Round-up: Passion Play gets pulses racing
The play, last seen in the West End in 2000, charts the collapse of a 25-year of marriage as a successful man still in love with his wife is attracted to a younger and sexually voracious woman whose temptations he's unable to resist. As trust collapses, husband and wife Eleanor and James are left floundering and exposed - along with their alter-egos...
The cast features Owen Teale, Samantha Bond, Oliver Cotton, Annabel Scholey, Sian Thomas and Zoe Wanamaker. David Leveaux directs.
Sacred music and secular love: it's a potent combination in Peter Nichols' raw and rasping 1981 adultery play that comes across in this lacerating revival by David Leveaux as a bitter, twisted comedy of human fallibility and carnal ecstasy... Leveaux and his actors never let us off the hook, to the extent even that it becomes hard to differentiate between the inner and outer expressions of the same character... Wanamaker, for instance, becomes increasingly strained and tragic as Bond (or Miss Moneypenny, I suppose we should say, to avoid further confusion) becomes more explicit in her disavowals... Equally, Teale's helplessness becomes a variation on Cotton's splenetic anguish, and the two of them meld into each other, as do the ladies, becoming almost identical twins, like the pairs of masters and slaves in The Comedy of Errors.
"This production by David Leveaux manages at its best to be clever and fun, with a strikingly spare design by Hildegard Bechtler. But the writing feels excessively artful. The title is loaded: this is a drama about passion and play in every imaginable sense of those words, and the attempt to drive home its religious implications doesn’t pay off. Although the snippets of Bach and Handel that punctuate the action add grandeur, the best of Nichols is his sour comedy, some of which doesn't quite come through... the novelty of Nichols' technique wears thin and creates some narrative tangles. For all its pleasures this is an oddly small play, which doesn’t say anything new about adultery or marriage."
Oliver Cotton (Jim), Samantha Bond (Nell), Zoë Wanamaker (Eleanor), Annabel Scholey (Kate) and Owen Teale (James)
Nichols' clever conceit is to have two actors playing each spouse in an initially happy 25-year marriage which is strained to breaking point when the husband embarks on an affair with Kate, a woman half his age... This may sound tricksy but it works superbly, to both comic and emotionally devastating effect. At the start of the affair, for instance, James returns home and tells his wife that he has missed her. But Jim, his alter ego, delivers rather different words as he thinks of his lunchtime date: 'Her tongue straight to the back of my mouth, circling like a snake inside'... The doubling of the female characters also allows Nichols to end the play on a fascinating note of ambiguity... David Leveaux’s beautifully judged production does full justice to this ingenious modern classic.
For the first half of David Leveaux's revival I was no more than mildly diverted... After the interval, however, the play enters another dimension. That's partly because Nichols ups the ante to show the corrosive consequences of betrayal, partly because I found it impossible to take my eyes off Zoë Wanamaker's Eleanor... It helps that she has Samantha Bond as her other self... If the play still works, it is because it reinforces the point made by Pinter in his own infidelity play: that betrayal doesn't stop in the bedroom. And, even if this production could do with a few more first-half laughs to set up the tonal contrast, it is elegantly designed by Hildegard Bechtler and gets good supporting performances from Annabel Scholey as the under-written Kate and Siân Thomas as another wronged wife seeking vindictive triumph. But it's Wanamaker who gives the evening its distinction by showing, with vivid particularity, how loss of trust in one's partner numbs the sense of self.
Adulterers may want to give Passion Play a miss, despite its voyeuristic frissons. Peter Nichols' play is a fraught depiction of marital betrayal, made all the more unsettling by its tricksy (and confusing) stage device of alter egos. This production has much going for it: strong acting from the likes of Samantha Bond and Zoe Wanamaker, plus a performance of wickedly slinky glamour from Annabel Scholey... So why do I hesitate to give the show four (phwoarr) stars? Because the characters are hard to like and director David Leveaux uses a heavy hand, not least with the blasts of entr'acte oratorio music... Despite these reservations, Passion Play provokes plenty of thought. And cool Miss Scholey, who has more curves than the Monte Carlo racetrack, may provoke reactions from a lower part of the anatomy.