Florian Zeller’s new play, The Height Of The Storm, which opened this week at Wyndham’s Theatre, is as enigmatic as it is engaging.
Even the title confounds. We first meet André the morning after a terrific storm. He’s standing in his shabby chic French home, with its tall windows and bookcases filled with a lifetime’s reading, staring out at..well, nothing very much.
As the story unfolds the audience is thrown into one confusion after another as timelines and events blur into a maelstrom of disjointed memories about a couple, their lives, family, and feelings.
It’s simultaneously entrancing and exhilarating.
Zeller’s beautifully constructed play, translated by Christopher Hampton, sends you pursuing one theory after another.
Just when you think you have a handle on the elliptical plot an exchange of glances, an odd word, makes you rethink everything.
Is Jonathan Pryce’s André dead? Is his wife, the calm and controlled Madeleine, played by Eileen Atkins, also departed? Is one or the other remaining yet haunted by the past? Are their spirits so intertwined that they cannot bear life or death apart?
And what about the reports of a suicide pact by mushroom? Those mushrooms being peeled by Madeleine were pretty suspicious – even André thought so. But were they a fungal red herring or a Destroying Angel?
The Height Of The Storm runs for 80 enthralling minutes, only pausing briefly for minor scene changes, and there’s a discernible whisper during the breaks from theatre-goers expounding their theories on the thought-provoking story.
André and Madeleine have been together for more than 50 years and have raised two daughters, Elise and Anne, who are visiting for the weekend.
We first see André talking with Anne who says she has come to sort out the house and persuade her father to move to somewhere smaller, less isolated.
He’s distracted but stubborn. He doesn’t want to move and, the more Anne insists, the more invisible he feels he’s become. No-one is listening to him.
And where is his wife? Out shopping? He is agitated and wants her to return.
“You think people are dead – but that’s not always the case!” he tells her. Well, exactly.
And then there’s the mystery of the attractive woman stranger (Lucy Cohu, every inch a femme fatale and very ambiguous) who had a son after an affair.
She claims to be a long lost friend of André’s but he doesn’t recognise her and becomes anxious when she brings up his past.
Later Madeleine returns and is seen talking to Elise who is visiting with her estate agent boyfriend. They’re having a similar discussion about fresh starts, sorting out dad’s things.
“I’m here! Can’t you see me? I’m here!” he shouts watching the exchange.
There is so much to absorb and admire. The only real certainty in this beguiling play is that you will be left fascinated and tempted to book again, just to have another run at it.
Pryce and Atkins are outstanding. Their nuanced performances tantalise with their subtlety. The more we learn the less we comprehend about the lives of the educated and loving couple whose futures are thrown in doubt by separation.
André is prickly, particularly about his past, taciturn, and frequently lost in thought, while Madeleine is capable, practical and prone to the odd cryptic line of dialogue that makes you shift forward in your seat.
Director Jonathan Kent has created an evocative and moving drama which asks as many questions as it answers.
Anthony Ward’s stunning set looks wonderful and Hugh Vanstone’s subdued lighting is almost a character in itself, throwing characters into shadows and offering a small illumination on reality.
My only, very small grumble, is that, on press night, it was occasionally difficult to hear some of the women’s dialogue, sitting at the back of the stalls.