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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SPLENDOUR
at Donmar Warehouse

VIOLENCE IS IMMINENT
By SAM MARLOWE

  Sinead Cusack, Michelle Fairley and Zawe Ashton/ Ph: Johan Persson

You’ve heard of Imelda Marcos, Mirjana Markovic and Elena Ceausescu – and there’s a little of all three of them in Micheleine, the imposing First Lady of an unnamed dictatorship in this 95-minute four-hander by Abi Morgan. Forensically directed by Robert Hastie, it’s a fascinating examination of power, as intricate as a string quartet, and with a similar, precise musicality. Morgan – who as a screenwriter gave us The Iron Lady and Shame – draws a taut, fine thread of tension between her characters, and tugs it to make them twitch and dance, sometimes grotesquely. It’s a drama that rarely raises its voice, but it hums and throbs with the threat of imminent violence.

Peter McKintosh’s set sparkles with chilly opulence. A modern chandelier gleams, reflected in a vast window; the black and white parquet floor is surrounded by glittering broken glass. Scenes are divided by abrupt fizzing power cuts, distant gunfire, the flash of a camera. We’re in the palace of the big man and his wife, where they insulate themselves with luxury against the misery and unrest outside – but a bloody reckoning is coming, and Micheleine, played with frosty, imperious self-possession by Sinead Cusack, knows it.

Micheleine has summoned Genevieve (Michelle Fairley), her friend, to keep her company as she struggles to detain a Western photojournalist, Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly), who has been invited to snap a portrait of her husband. Also hovering, eyeing her surroundings and the women’s belongings hungrily, is Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a translator. From beneath the manners of shallow diplomacy and politesse, rage and deep-seated loathing begins to seep. As darkness falls and the dictator fails to appear, it becomes apparent that he has fled, abandoning his wife. Micheleine and Genevieve’s relationship, in which the former plays gracious benefactress to the latter, turns out to be rooted in fear and subjugation, a concoction of coercion, caviare and lies. Gilma lurks about, lying – badly – in two languages and pilfering anything portable. And hard-bitten Kathryn, who admits that she’s far more comfortable observing atrocity through a lens, looks on with an appraising contempt, concerned that she may be missing a bigger story unfolding elsewhere as the tide of revolution rises inexorably.

There are myriad telling details in both the writing and the production. Switches from one language to another are indicated by subtle changes in rhythm and intonation. Snatches of dialogue are repeated with small, significant variations, each revealing some new nuance of meaning. The humanity of each of these women glimmers beneath their pretence: Ashton, stroking the furniture longingly, smiling with gleeful spite when the elegant floor is accidentally scratched, and speaking with an awful, self-loathing distaste of her family in the despised Northern province; Fairley trembling with repressed grief, hatred and anger as she recalls Micheleine’s savage duplicity. Cusack, meanwhile, clenches her jaw against the vengeance that awaits her – even as she realises what it will mean for her small son – and Kathryn, quietly confessing to herself the corrosive toll her profession takes on her, wearily prepares to sharpen her focus on another scene of horror. It’s grisly without the briefest hint of the lurid or sensational: cruel, intelligent and icily compelling.

 


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