tue 27/02/2024

The Height of the Storm, Wyndham's Theatre review - Eileen Atkins raises the elliptical to art | reviews, news & interviews

The Height of the Storm, Wyndham's Theatre review - Eileen Atkins raises the elliptical to art

The Height of the Storm, Wyndham's Theatre review - Eileen Atkins raises the elliptical to art

Florian Zeller puzzle-play benefits from two potent stars

Eye(leen) of the storm: Dame Eileen Atkins in 'The Height of the Storm'Richard Hubert Smith

If you're going to write a play that traffics in bafflement, it's not a bad idea to have on hand one of the most beady-eyed actresses around.

That would be Dame Eileen Atkins, whose keen-eyed intelligence cuts a swathe through the deliberate obfuscations of The Height of the Storm, the latest from the ever-prolific Frenchman, Florian Zeller. More than any of his previous works, the fractured storytelling at work here adds up to an elaborate puzzle that is sure to leave audiences debating over post-show drinks what the hell actually happened. Such discussions need not be rushed, by the way, given the play's 80 minute length. 

But it's a credit to the exceptionally graceful shepherding of the director, Jonathan Kent, and two on-point stars in a peppery Jonathan Pryce and the inestimable Dame Eileen that a tricksy text compels for the most part and only irritates now and again. Zeller cribs pretty shamelessly along the way from Beckett and Shakespeare  –  Lear is subliminally referenced throughout, not least in the Parisian author's symbolically tempestuous title. And devotees of his work may feel as if they have been here before. Zeller tilled the tremulous soil of mental debility in his West End and Broadway hit The Father, whose splintered narrative constitutes a study in blinding clarity compared to the goings-on this time round. (The elliptical in the theatre is fine, but it needs to be exactingly achieved: Zeller ain't Beckett or Pinter, at least not yet.) 

Seen at the start in profile, his face given over more often than not to fury, Pryce's André   yes, the same name as the mentally wayward patriarch in The Father - is lamenting the death of his beloved wife, Madeleine (Atkins), and fielding the presence of first one and then another of the couple's two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Anna Madeley). So far so straightforward you might think until Madeleine soon after appears and gathers her family around her while she busies herself peeling mushrooms (yum!) in the kitchen. André, we're informed, "made me promise to outlive him", or so reports Madeleine, who is soon joined at the table by an unnamed familial outsider (the ever-arresting Lucy Cohu) whose identity shifts with the shimmering changes in hue of Hugh Vanstone's dreamy lighting. (Pryce and Drew pictured below, photo c. Hugo Glendinning

Jonathan Pryce as Andrew in Florian Zeller playWho is alive and who isn't, and whose mind is prone to the wildest leaps of fancy? (Anne at one point indicates a psychic fragility of her own.) While the periodic lowering of the frontcloth allows the audience to posit its own quick theory or two, Zeller soon makes plain a lack of interest in narrative niceties in favour of a prismatic landscape of grief, loss, and eternal dependence that finds its fullest expression in the play's closing passage  –  though it surely says something about Zeller's structural disregard that the penultimate scene was applauded as if that were the end of the play when it wasn't. 

Taking to the stage by themselves, neither of the children in sight, André and Madeleine share a rending duologue that pierces through the sometimes self-conscious artifice of the play's Rubik's Cube-like qualities to speak to the intensity with which the dead walk amongst the living: Atkins, too, recalls her work opposite Michael Gambon in the Beckett discovery, All That Fall, as she turns a penetrating gaze towards the husband whom on some level she will never leave, no matter how fully death may represent a "deliverance".

Reprising a variant on the celebrated author he is playing onscreen just now in The Wife, Pryce brings an ornery splendour to the prismatic mood shifts of a mind that won't be undone until it is. But even as she recedes into an inky blackness, this wife (as is true of Glenn Close's celluloid spouse) quietly haunts proceedings, just as she lingers forever in the shards of memory of the husband whom she may or may not have predeceased. I can't tell you what happens for sure during The Height of the Storm, but one thing's for certain: its leading lady is bliss. 

The closing duologue pierces through the sometimes self-conscious artifice of the play's Rubik's Cube-like qualities


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