Duke of York’s Theatre. Directed by Michael Blackmore. Based on the novel by Sándor Márai. Opened at this theatre February 15, 2006
A showpiece for Jeremy Irons, long absent from the West End, from a novel by the long-time expatriate Hungarian Márai, who killed himself in San Diego in 1989. It was only after this that his 1942 novel rose to fame in multiple translations. This is a fairly slight piece, not much more than an extended monologue by Irons’s character, Henrik, delivered to his old friend and betrayer Konrad (Patrick Malahide); one other character, Henrik’s ancient wetnurse, Nini, who lives with him in the Hungarian Castle where he was born, appears briefly at the beginning of the end.
I asked the two middle-aged English ladies who sat, enthralled, next to me in the first row of the balcony whether Jeremy Irons was the hunk he used to be. “It’s his voice,” they said, “His voice.” Pheromones aside, I found the voice riveting but not especially articulate. Velvet tones and nice, clear consonants don’t often sit happily together. (But, then, I’m dealing with a certain amount of hearing loss; it may just be me.)
In any case, Konrad has arrived at the castle en route to living out the rest of his life in London. Just why he has agreed to come here to be mercilessly grilled and lectured at by the Irons character is not an immediately accessible fact, though of course it is the necessary dramaturgical precedent for the play itself. We find out that Henrik and Konrad were boyhood friends who became life-long friends — up to the point at which Konrad abruptly, and as it seemed mysteriously, vanished, ran away. Henrik, who is extremely intuitive, intuited after the fact that Konrad had a long-term adulterous affair with Henrik’s own wife, Kristine, and that Konrad, one morning as they hunted, had pointed his gun at Henrik’s head — and then slowly and carefully lowered it without firing. When Henrik went to Konrad’s rooms on the day after Konrad had fled, Kristina appeared there, and when it became apparent that Konrad was gone, Kristina exclaimed, “Coward!” At once, the whole thing became clear to Henrik, who immediately retreated from the castle to a lonely hunting lodge, where he stayed out of communication with Kristina for eight years, until she died of a rare blood disease; she called for Henrik, in vain (he did not hear the call!) on her deathbed.
And so both Henrik and Konrad turn out to be cowards, Henrik concludes — the both of them together worth less than the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world. Yeah.
Quite amazing, that Hampton, who has written some interesting plays — I saw The Talking Cure at the Cottesloe in 2002, about Jung’s cure of a deeply distressed and conflicted woman, and has adapted some interesting novels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses prominent among them — has been able to craft this long monologue, punctuated occasionally by monosyllabic grunts from Konrad, in such a way as to hold an audience for nearly two hours. Of course the first “half,” only twenty or twenty-five minutes long, was the fictional prelude to dinner, with the after-dinner truth talk still to come. It would’ve been better to play it without intermission; that first part was a strain on patience, and there was a lot of coughing in the audience. Hampton and the director probably decided that the audience couldn’t go straight for an hour and three quarters. And yet the audience of Blackbird, just a hundred yards back up St Martin’s Lane, at the Albery, had no trouble at all with an interval-less performance of two hours.
And that was the difference between a very slickly trumped up vehicle for an actor who, over a long career, has made a specialty of playing cowards, and plays them extremely well (as in the first instance of an “Irons role” that I remember seeing, the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, opposite an extremely pathetic, that is, full of pathos, Meryl Streep) — the difference, I say, between that and a real, serious, notably unromantic drama based on genuine, complex human feeling instead of an old-style comic romantic play-out-of-a-novel about an old man (or as old as Irons can manage to be with an enraptured audience still in tow) who has wasted his life agonizing over guilt and self-reproach.
A tell-tale moment: at the very beginning of the play, the Irons character opens the drawer of a stand-up desk, removes a Luger pistol, pushes a clip of bullets into the handle, goes to the window, and pretends to take aim at the carriage in which his old friend Konrad is arriving for their evening of truth. But he doesn’t fire, and instead puts the gun away in the drawer. Ibsen has taught us that no such action in the theatre is ever wasted, and so we wait for Henrik to go to the drawer and remove the pistol and shoot the friend who once took aim at him and seduced his wife (we think) and ruined his life. And when Konrad goes away, at almost the end of the play, we begin to think that Henrik, in a fit of self-loathing, will take out the gun and kill himself. But neither one of these events, which the long reign of the well-made play has taught us to anticipate, occurs. Instead, the old nurse, Nini, comes in, puts out the lights, gives her boy a good night kiss, and retires.
And so the play misfires. What the hell are you doing, Christopher Hampton, bringing out a pistol and then not letting it be discharged? Is this a postmodern riposte to Hedda Gabler, where there are two pistols, and by God both of them are discharged by the end of the play? It was a tease, I suppose.
Or else it was a way of commenting on the really deep cowardice of this faux-general who thought World War I was “really horrible,” and who somehow preserved his life so as to have a showdown that amounts to almost nothing except a long exposition of guilt and lack of conviction on the part of this romantic hero-manqué.
But the audience, including a notably large component of young people, like the three just behind me who were speaking Hungarian before the play began, evidently really loved it. Probably a good thing that I don’t write theatre criticism for the daily papers.