So popular is Zeller with British audiences that the French playwright has skipped a Paris run altogether for his latest play, The Forest, collaborating with his long-time translator Christopher Hampton, director Jonathan Kent (who also helmed The Height of the Storm) and a cast of heavyweights to give the play its world premiere at Hampstead Theatre.
Gina McKee and Toby Stephens. Photo: The Other Richard
The Forest bears the hallmarks of a typical Zeller play with a plot that nestles the audience in the nitty-gritty imperfections and heartache of familial relationships, before taking us deeper into the psyche of its central character. Appearances are warped and multiple figures condensed into one, in dream-like sequences that would make Freud pat himself on the back.
Inside a stylish, Parisian home, we meet a middle-aged couple, known only as Man 1 (a clipped Toby Stephens) and The Wife (a gracious but underused Gina McKee), who are worrying about their adult daughter (Millie Brady, in a solid professional debut), after finding out her long-term partner has been having an affair.
This initial drama is not dwelt on, though. The majority of the 80-minute play focuses on Man 1’s mental unravelling over the guilt of his own duality: publicly, he’s a celebrated doctor and patriarch of a nuclear family; secretly, he’s conducting his own extramarital affair with a young, beautiful singer, known here as The Girlfriend (a sultry Angel Coulby, whose tendency to elongate her words is jarring).
At times, Man 1 becomes Man 2, his slightly younger, trimmer, less jaded self (portrayed by Paul McGann) – and this is initially as confusing as it sounds.
Toby Stephens and Finbar Lynch. Photo: The Other Richard
Through nightmarish scenes between Man 1 or Man 2 and the play’s most interesting character, Man in Black (a fittingly creepy Finbar Lynch) – who straddles the roles of a psychiatrist, a judge and Man 1’s own conscience – we witness Man 1’s disintegration.
If this sounds like an enthralling premise it will likely keep you hooked, but the non-linear narrative that spirals from the realms of a family drama into a psychological thriller-cum-nightmare will leave some feeling baffled. Its looping plot, where scenes are repeated with minor differences, neither develops nor makes a point. Meanwhile, the script is largely clichéd and empty; conversations meander, fizzle and don’t really go anywhere, but a desire for things to ‘go back to normal’ is stated over and over.
A flick through the programme will confirm this was Zeller’s intention. The playwright counts the great Eugène Ionesco among his inspirations. But while Ionesco used a circular narrative and cliché-riddled script to make his plays like The Chairs (a stellar production of which is currently showing at the Almeida) a departure from the theatre that came before, here, these techniques leave The Forest seeming underdeveloped.
Gina McKee and Paul McGann. Photo: The Other Richard
The Forest certainly looks the part. Anna Fleischle’s award-worthy set spreads the drama across a two-tier stage split into three compartments: a living room and upper bedroom – which would not look out of place in a House & Home photoshoot – and a smaller office space. The set works with the narrative, too: Man 1’s increasingly anxious state is contrasted comically with the appearance of more and more bouquets of flowers – a token of his status as an esteemed doctor – each time the dinner-party scene is repeated.
Having different actors play the same characters is a favourite trick of Zeller’s and here, it adds an appropriately eerie layer. But what does it all mean? That there’s potential for duality in all of us? That we can all be fallible? Who knows.
The Forest raises more questions than it answers and while its conclusion is not entirely satisfying, you’ll leave the theatre with plenty to discuss.
|What||The Forest, Hampstead Theatre review|
|Where||Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Swiss Cottage (underground)|
07 Feb 22 – 12 Mar 22, 7:30 PM – 8:50 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|