Celebrated French Playwright Florian Zeller has thrown a lightning bolt onto the stage in his latest play, The Height of the Storm, one which crackles with the energy of modern day Greek tragedy.
It is a beautifully crafted play wrapped inside a gossamer veil of lost memory and ghosted conversations that unravels itself as each character speaks from a perspective that may, or may not, be anchored in nonlinear time.
André, a respected author (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) have been married for 50 years. Their two daughters, Elise (Anna Madeley) and Anne (Amanda Drew) have come to visit them in their high-ceilinged, well-lived in country house somewhere outside of Paris.
When we meet André he is standing at a kitchen window, his craggy face etched with a blank fierceness. There’s been a wrathful storm the night before, one that threatened the sanctity of the house and its foundations. We wonder if a world turned upside down is what André sees through the window. If so, it is an apt metaphor for the fragmented thoughts that swirl inside his head and the fractious relations that exist between his two deceitful daughters.
The play, directed by Jonathan Kent, leaves us continually off-footed. We think André is a widower suffering with dementia who is about to lose his independence. King Lear comes to mind as we watch him being bullied by his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) who tries to convince him that he is no longer capable of living alone. She is adept at avoiding the term ‘nursing home’, a place that is eerily referred to as The Blue House when André is out of earshot. Neither André nor Anne use the word death to explain Madeleine’s absence, although Anne repeatedly reminds her father that there is no-one in the house to care for him. But then Madeleine comes in from shopping with her younger daughter Elise (Anna Madeley) and we’re not sure about what we’ve learned in the scene before. What remains lucid throughout the play, however, is André’s devotion to his wife and how much he enjoys her recipe for mushrooms.
Just when we think we’ve misinterpreted the earlier scene between André and Anne – perhaps it was a detour into a distant future when André would have to face life without Madeleine – we learn that Madeleine is the one who is widowed. This is disclosed as she sits at the kitchen table recalling a conversation from a shared past. ‘Andre made me promise to outlive him,’ she declares to her daughters.
There is also the mystery of a bouquet of flowers delivered without a card and a visit from a buxom, red-lipsticked woman (Lucy Cohu) who claims to be a good friend from André’s earlier life, but André doesn’t recognise her. What he longs for and looks for is simply Madeleine’s presence. Is she dead? If so, she is still more vibrantly alive than Elise’s estate agent boyfriend Paul (James Hillier), who scrolls through the messages on his mobile phone while Elise fawns over him.
For all its references to death and dream-like melancholy, The Height of the Storm is rooted in a poignant love story so powerful it blots out the universe around André and Madeleine, two characters who eclipse the needs and demands of the people around them, even when those people are their own daughters.
There are many ways to engage with these marital titans who seem to have spilled from the lips of the Roman poet Ovid. And although Pryce and Atkins are a tender complement as a long-wedded couple, it is ultimately Atkins embodiment of Madeleine that reaches the pinnacle of greatness. See this play for many reasons but especially for Atkins who may be the finest actor in contemporary theatre.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Andre and Madeleine have been in love for over fifty years. This weekend, as their daughters visit, something feels unusual. A bunch of flowers arrives, but who sent them? A woman from the past turns up, but who is she? And why does Andre feel like he isn’t there at all?
The Height of The Storm Wyndham
THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM is a beautifully compelling family drama by Florian Zeller, “the most exciting playwright of our time” (The Guardian). Starring two of the greatest actors of their generation on stage together for the first time, this major new play from the writer of Olivier Award-Winning The Father is a searing exploration of love, family and the fragility of life.
The Height of the Storm
2nd October 2018 – 1st December 2018
Monday – Saturday: 7:45pm, Wednesday & Saturday: 2.30pm.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no interval.