Florian Zeller‘s new play The Height of the Storm opened at Wyndham’s Theatre this week, bringing the inimitable Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce back to the London stage.
This is a play whose story deserves to enjoyed spoiler free. That’s not to say it’s got a Sixth Sense-style twist in the tail, but Zeller’s intention is that the audience experience the play’s reality through the discombobulated lens of its main character.
So the straightforward, unspoilt review is simply:
Pryce and Atkins deliver fantastic, nuanced performances; by turns heart-wrenching and funny, and entirely authentic. The Height of the Storm is an astute portrait of an ageing family.
Now for those of you less precious about being spoilt, read on!
The marketing for this production wants to sell the core of this plot as a mystery, but that’s not how it’s written. This is no An Inspector Calls. The disjunction is clear from the second scene; there are multiple timelines and unreliable recollections at play and the confusion will linger through the subsequent three acts.
And the experience of that confusion is at the core of Zeller’s narrative.
What’s not at the core of Zeller’s narrative is solving a puzzle of which character isn’t really there, which is something the modern audience might have struggle with (and definitely the audience we were with). Not being sure what’s going on, or what is real or not, is exactly the point of this story about a recent widower suffering from dementia.
So, if you can tune out the whispers of the people around you asking which character isn’t there, you’ll enjoy the slow unwinding of a couple’s 50 year marriage, and their relationships with their daughters; and all of that framing a poignant commentary on how we might deal with a loved one who becoming not themselves.
Atkin’s Madeleine responds to André’s dementia by covering for his moments of confusion and forgetfulness.
Their daughters, Anne and Elise (Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley, respectively), ignorant of the extent of their father’s senility, are confronted by the reality of his care after Madeleine’s sudden death. (We said there’d be spoilers)
It’s a very current story, not far from the minds of Boomer/Millennial families, making it far more relatable than the opening few scenes might threaten the play will be – as “ageing, acclaimed writer André” is hassled by his daughter. But this isn’t another navel-gazing play by a writer about a writer. André’s profession is entirely irrelevant, to the point that his being a writer feels like a distracting cliché when he could just as well have been any successful, middle-class man.
There are tinges here of a Willy Loman story – the fraying sense of self and the attempts to preserve a personality that once commanded self-respect; and this should be an everyman story. We all do age and we all have some fear of losing our sense of self. However, André being “a successful writer”, whose work and writing has been lauded and is worthy of preservation, and whose mind is somehow of a finer calibre than average; this is all an unnecessary division between the subject and the audience.
This is a shame. Doubtless, Zeller is writing what he knows. As a writer acclaimed from the age of 22, André is a reflection of Zeller’s own fears as much as he is based on any experience, and so this is somehow a work of predictive autobiography. But it doesn’t need to be, and The Height of the Storm is at its best when it is most pared back, as Madeleine sits beside André, quietly comforting him, preparing mushrooms, as her spotlight dims and she promises never to leave him. His career is irrelevant then, and it really is throughout; there’s a universe just one more draft away, where André’s story is that much more universal.
Having said all of that, it’s fascinating to see Pryce play ‘an acclaimed, ageing writer, losing core parts of his self‘ so soon after the release of the film The Wife, where he plays ‘an acclaimed, ageing writer, losing core parts of his self‘ opposite the always thrilling to watch, Glenn Close.
There, the threat to Pryce’s Joe Castlemain is the truth, while here it is the losing of it. Castlemain is a shadow of a writer, while André is becoming one; and Pryce’s character and characterisation here is infinitely more relatable for an audience than Castlemain’s arrogant, petty shamelessness.
Spoiler Alert ‘The Wife‘ Edition: Taking credit for your wife’s talent makes you feel so impotent you just have to be a philanderer? Poor you. For all the Oscar buzz surrounding Close’s performance – and, as a rule, we would love to see Ms Close win all the awards – Joan Castlemain isn’t the role she should be recognised for. Nuanced though she may be, the drama at the heart of The Wife is flaccid (pun intended). The tension is repeatedly released prematurely. The characters never have to confront the full weight or realisation of the consequences of their actions. There’s a good idea in there, but it’s inadequately mined.
On the other hand, Close’s Eleanor of Aquitaine…*swoon*
But we digress.
The Height of the Storm is a well-written, timely play, show-casing two fantastic, central performances, and a completely real and heart-breaking relationship. While we may have wanted it to be more, it’s no less worthy of your time.
Go and enjoy these two greats of English theatre in what deserves to be among their most memorable roles.
And to those leaving the theatre confounded by “who sent the flowers?”: it’s not about who sent the flowers, it’s that they’re sent for Madeleine’s funeral. That’s what the card says.
Come on people.
Go and see it if you can, and if you have, let us know what you think of Zeller’s latest work in the comments below.