The new hit from French playwright Florian Zeller, translated as usual by Christopher Hampton, treads familiar ground. It intelligently manipulates audience expectations and is expertly theatrical– to his credit, you can’t imagine Zeller’s work in any other medium. As with hisprevious play, The Father, dementia and the impact on a family of that awful disease are the subject matter. But the love story of a devoted couple, André and Madeleine, one of whom dies, means The Height of the Storm can mine the depths of even more emotion.
Zeller’s writing seems a gift to directors, and Jonathan Kent’s work here is faultless and attractive to performers. Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play the daughters of the piece impeccably, never overstating their characters’ differences. And there are two strong performances from James Hillier and Lucy Cohu as strangers who flit between supporting and threatening the family. But the play belongs to André and Madeleine, played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins – two masterclasses not to be missed. Pryce gives a tender performance detailing the fears of old age, while Atkins magnificently develops her role’s carefully revealed depths. Together their devotion as a couple is utterly convincing and incredibly moving.
While set in Zeller’s typically sophisticated milieu (André is a man of letters and Anthony Ward’s design of his house is retro-boho-chic), the rawness of grief removes us from the urbane characters that can sometimes feel foreign in his plays. The twist is a painful one – we don’t really know whether it’s André or Madeleine who has died. The confusion isn’t just because of André’s dementia. When the couple talk to one another it isn’t clear if the scene is a flashback or a grief-stricken fantasy, and they both refer to the other dying. So, Zeller presents us with both scenarios and the awful question of what would be ‘best’ arises – for you or your partner to die first? And which of your parents could cope best on their own?
Some may find Zeller’s approach opaque, but his skill at crafting the confusion is brilliant. The Height of the Storm opens up a debate about the end of our lives that is urgent and, in privileging the perspective of the elderly, an important contribution. We are taken to the heart of the drama and the issue at the same time and asked to confront both in a personal fashion. The finale emphasises the couple’s love. It reminds us of their agency as well as what is at stake. And, if you haven’t been crying already, you will be by the end.
Until 1 December 2018
Photos by Hugo Glendinning