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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Duke of York’s Theatre


  Owen Teale, Annabel Scholey and Zoe Wanamaker/ Ph: Johan Persson

Sexual betrayal is the messy stuff of drama, from the Greeks to modern soap opera. In Peter Nichols’ 1981 play, the enduring theme is given an extra layer of irony and wit – a process that, conversely, strips away a protective skin, exposing red-raw pain.
Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which came three years before Passion Play, employs a time-traveling device to explore marital infidelity. Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982) plays sophisticated theatrical games. Nichols uses stage doubles. As the central relationship is warped by deceit and the violation of trust, each half of the couple is haunted by an alter ego, who goads, supports and wryly commentates. It’s as if the breakdown of the marriage – though the relationship continues to exist, despite being irrevocably damaged – has resulted in a psychological splintering that has split both parties in two. It is an agonising process that one of them will barely survive.
And yet Nichols’ writing, and this deft revival by David Leveaux, is sleekly elegant and bleakly funny. James (Owen Teale), a picture restorer, and Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker), a music teacher and chorister, have been married for 25 years. Theirs is a warm, still-sensual relationship. And then a chance remark by Eleanor after an evening spent with Kate (Annabel Scholey), a younger, glamorous photographer, and formerly the lover of Albert, a friend who has since died, presages emotional catastrophe. Kate, Eleanor laughingly remarks, fancies James. He professes himself merely irritated by Kate; but Kate has a taste for married men. Albert himself was married when he and Kate became involved; and, it transpires, Kate has been plotting her seduction of James since the day of Albert’s funeral. Her cunning deployment of flattery, flirtation, scent and silk underwear – “all the knocking-shop accoutrements,” as acidly described by James’ alter ego, Jim (Oliver Cotton) – effortlessly lures James to her bed. And Eleanor, wounded, humiliated, clinging to her dignity as she’s battered by the double betrayal by both friend and spouse, becomes dogged by her second self, Nell (Samantha Bond), ready with the whip-smart putdowns Eleanor now struggles to muster, but also a needling voice of reproach.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set is minimal, clinically white, punctuated by only by a blood-red sofa. And the structural precision of Nichols’ writing, its careful contrivance, could, in clumsier hands, work against its theatrical success. The roles of Jim and Nell are by definition circumscribed, since they are fragments of James and Eleanor’s minds. And Kate is a pretty shallow creation – an amoral, highly sexed home-wrecker with little personality beyond her appetites. And yet Leveaux makes the suffering acute, as the crack between James and Eleanor widens and becomes a chasm. Teale’s James displays an infuriating, callous disregard for the agony he inflicts.
And there’s a heart-breaking scene between Wanamaker’s bewildered Eleanor and Sian Thomas as Agnes, Albert’s vengeful, bitter ex-wife, in which Agnes reveals with relish James and Kate’s affair across the tea table. Wanamaker visibly disintegrates as the wounded incomprehension and the awful ache lingers, despite a queasy resumption of domestic normality. Every corner of their relationship is changed. Even in Eleanor’s passion for sacred music and James’ indifference towards the religious paintings he works on, we begin to see that what two people believed to be common ground is now falling away from beneath their feet, along with their shared past and a bearable future. Cruel, clever and as dizzyingly unsettling as vertigo.


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