My favourite theatre production from last year was the Donmar's funny but devastating revival of Kevin Elyot's MY NIGHT WITH REG which was directed by actor-turned-director Robert Hastie so when it was announced that he would be directing the theatre's revival of Abi Morgan's SPLENDOUR I leaped at the chance to see it. Could Hastie repeat his success with SPLENDOUR's all-female cast as he had with REG's all-male cast?
Abi Morgan's play, first performed in 2000, is a lesser work than Elyot's MY NIGHT WITH REG but Hastie again elicits strong performances from his four actresses.
The action takes place in the soulless elegance of a reception room in the palace of an unnamed country's dictator. It suggests the adopted style of a 1970s hotel lobby with it's large windows and the heavy design of it's large, swirling light-fitting. Unseen to the audience is a large abstract painting by a dead artist. Surrounding Peter McKintosh's set is a circle of glittering, shattered glass which gives a suggestion of what is going on the other side of the windows.
Kathryn, a famous photo-journalist is waiting to take an officially-arranged portrait of the dictator of an un-named, possibly East European, country. She waits with Gilma, her appointed translator who seems unsettled, nervously clutching her large shoulder-bag to her at all times.
They are finally joined by the dictator's polished and chic wife Micheleine who placates the photographer with news that her husband is running late and they are also joined by Micheline's best friend Genevieve, bedraggled from the pouring rain. And they wait, and wait.
Morgan's theatrical trick is that they, of course, all speak English but the photographer has to put all her questions to the two women through the translator, who is less than correct in what she translates. Is she inept or does she have her own agenda?
And still they wait until slowly what is happening outside the palace is made clear - the photographer talks of the scary taxi ride through the agitated city, Genevieve talks of the rising tension on the streets, the translator reveals that she is from the same area as the rebels and we realise that the dictator's regime is in it's last hours.
As the realisation dawns that her husband's non-appearance could mean that he has fled the country, Micheleine lashes out at everyone and in particular at Genevieve, whose artist husband painted the abstract on the wall and whose death was sanctioned by the dictator. In a harrowing exchange Micheleine chides Genevieve for being unloved by her children thanks to her continued friendship with the wife of their father's murderer while Genevieve reveals she only goes through the motions of friendship for the safety of her family.
Morgan's play is certainly interesting but ultimately it's deliberate obliqueness and showy theatrics cannot sustain it's ambition. Several times during it's uninterrupted 90 minutes the play stops and starts from the opening scene again but quickly picks up from where the previous scene ended. You would understand if it was to show the action from each character's viewpoint but it doesn't do this, just a fracturing of the timeline for it's own sake.
However the play's drawbacks are more than compensated by Hastie's taut direction and the excellent performances of Sinéad Cusack as Micheleine, by turns caustic, defiant, spiteful and haughty while finally facing her fate with a withering scorn, Michelle Fairley as Genevieve, worn-down by the constant pressure of knowing her dangerous former friend, and Zawe Ashton as Gilma, the seemingly inept interpreter who slowly reveals her disregard for Micheleine's authority by stealing and breaking objects in the palace. In a nice final exchange, Gilma demands Micheleine's designer shoes as her people are barefoot but not before Micheleine wryly notices that they are just Gilma's size.
Genevieve O'Reilly had a harder time to impress as her character was the most colourless of all - photographer as observer - but she had an arresting presence on stage all the same. While ultimately I felt that, stripped of the production and performances, the play is possibly not as good as it thinks it is, Morgan is still to be applauded for writing such densely-woven roles for four actresses.