Friday, 18 February 2022

REVIEW: The Forest at the Hampstead Theatre

Hotly anticipated production by Florian Zeller, with a stellar cast including Paul McGann and Gina McKee, translated by Christopher Hampton, revolves around the splintering and fragmenting mind of distinguished husband, father and surgeon Pierre, as his sanity is challenged at the mercy of a life lived through layers of lies caused by his infidelities. 

Lie upon lie, you become a person you don’t recognise anymore. A poignant tale not fully told.

In this non-linear piece, fantasy blends with reality as scenes are repeated with changes representing Pierre’s twisted perception as his reality begins to crumble. Nuanced and sensitive writing is replaced with theatrical devices. The actors appear like marionettes playing the game of life, rather than expressing the complexities that the realism of the characters and their dialogue require. Lacking in nuance, it played out like they were telling the story, rather than acting it out.

From the beginning, relations between Pierre and his wife, played by Gina McKee are brittle and husk-like, the foundations worn thin after 25 years of marriage. Their joylessness, emphasised by their friend’s happy and buoyant relationship, is played eloquently and sensitively by Sakuntala Ramanee and Silas Carson. We learn little about the wife except that she’d love a Holiday, indeed from the beginning they’re both running on empty. With this in mind, it is difficult to feel compassion, when those closest to Pierre appear alienated and self-absorbed from the onset. Aside from McKee’s lingering and knowing stare at the end, she is somewhat a benign and ghost-like feature.

Toby Stephens is charming and exuberant as Pierre, with the charisma of a man who one believes has the potential to maintain the complex and troubling situation of an affair. The role is split, with Paul McGann playing the aspect of Pierre the adulterer is less convincing.

The set by Anna Fleischle is an elegant metaphor housing the psyche of the adulterer. The bedroom where the infidelities occur on a mezzanine level is ‘the disaster hanging heavy over his (my) head’; his family living room below which accumulates flowers as the play progresses, like a house in mourning and an office where he escapes to ‘fix’ his rattled brain. 

The actual emotional journey of Pierre is told through 1990’s stylistic ‘tricks’, attempting poetic lyricism, with the use of metaphor in the form of flowers, masks, dead animals a joker-like character, representing (presumably) the conscience, the set itself. The script doesn’t allow for much more than posturing, as it’s light on psychological depth, which seems like an opportunity missed, considering the calibre of the cast. 

Review by Mandy Gordon

Rating: ★★★

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