Thursday 1 August 2013

Passion Play @ The Duke of York's Theatre

As the title suggests, passion is at the heart of this play from Peter Nichols – whether a passion for the arts, or passionate sexual desire.  Passion Play blurs the boundaries between comedy and tragedy, but is this really a brutal look at modern relationships or simply adults fooling around once their children have flown the nest?

This is a world where ‘love’ is a dirty word.  The blank set is devoid of colour besides the ominous deep red sofa of passion – imposing yet somehow simply part of the furniture, the basis for the majority of scenes.  The narrative depicts the failing marriage of Eleanor (Zöe Wanamaker) and James (Owen Teale), presumably in their fifties and on the cusp of mid-life crises, whose indulgence in music and art is disturbed when James is lured astray by their younger friend Kate (Annabel Scholey), turning their world upside down.  The set allows for simultaneous scenes that reflect the intermingling of relationships, the lies building into a complex web of trickery and infidelity.  Once a cheat, always a cheat.

The intriguing conceit of Passion Play is to have both partners’ conscience physically embodied on-stage (Samantha Bond as Eleanor’s alter-ego Nell and Oliver Cotton, likewise, as Jim), revealing through inner-monologue the characters’ honest thoughts to the audience.  But is honesty always the best policy?  This use of dramatic irony provides plenty of opportunity for comedy, but also provides a psychological subtext.  As Eleanor attends psychotherapy classes, the play questions whether James’ affair is a result of paranoia in female psychosis, or an inability for men to remain monogamous?  And is Eleanor so innocent herself?  Infidelity is an affliction of both sexes – it’s how we deal with it that separates us.

Whether this is a comedy or tragedy is certainly up for debate.  The themes are undoubtedly serious and honest, but are sometimes undermined by the comic elements.  The use of melodramatic classical music, from Mozart, Bach and others, is perhaps unintentionally amusing.  The characters, too, are predictably stereotypical: James the bumbling older man who so easily succumbs to seduction; Kate the laughably, overtly sexual femme fatale; Eleanor the lost soul who turns to drink in her time of need.  The naturalistic performances are excellent – the relationship between Eleanor and James is touchingly portrayed by Wanamaker and Teale, whilst Bond and Cotton impressively mimic their corresponding characters.  Scholey, however, is something of a parody.  Yet despite the talent on-stage, the actors never quite escape the confines of cliché.

Passion Play is an erotically charged and sometimes uncomfortable watch – for the mostly older audience it represents our fifties as a period of newfound freedom and possibility, with potentially dire consequences; for anyone younger, it’s like watching your parents making out.  If that doesn’t put you off cheating, I don’t know what will.


Watch: Passion Play runs until 3rd August at the Duke of York’s Theatre.