“Has theatre abandoned the middle class?” wailed a headline in the Telegraph last Tuesday. Well, not this week. Simon Woods’s debut play, boldly programmed in the substantial space of the Lyttelton, is set in the Cotswolds, features a cream-coloured Aga and stars a sparring couple: (white) Tory MP (Eton’n’Oxford) and his (white) left-leaning, non-working wife. The foxes that destroy the garden are accused of being European; this country is accused of having an “insatiable desire to be fucked by an old Etonian”. It is May 1988.
Viewing the present through a 30-year-old lens, Hansard is often elegant but rarely urgent. Woods, himself an actor (he was Mr Bingley in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie), has come up with springy one-liners and tried to guard against too obvious a distribution of sympathy, not least by giving the MP some shrewd anti-theatre grumbles: too many neurasthenics on stage; not enough people doing jobs. Yet some targets are too predictably lined up, as if the couple were appearing on the Today programme: he sneers at Islington and geography teachers. She snipes at Margaret Thatcher for favouring men. I would still like one day to see a play in which it was the chap who was the lefty and the woman rigidly unemotional.
Crucially, a shift in emphasis and feeling comes too abruptly in this 90-minute play. 1988 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced section 28, the law forbidding local authorities to “promote homosexuality”. An unspoken truth is eventually disclosed and the couple’s bitterness can be seen in a different light. But the revelation comes like a bushfire, not as something that has been simmering.
It does, though, show two marvellous actors at their intricate best. Lindsay Duncan has a lethal delicacy. Slipping through the room that Hildegard Bechtler has cleverly designed to look opulent and uncared for, she eviscerates with a sigh or a husky emphasis. Alex Jennings, swinging around with smooth confidence but holding his jaw rigid, crumples like a blown-up paper bag. Director Simon Godwin will be missed at the National as he takes up an artistic directorship in Washington.
Reverberations in a chic setting are a good indicator for the West End. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a Simon Woods play there in the future. Florian Zeller, the prolific French playwright, has been pulling off transfers for years: his latest play, The Son, opened at the Kiln in February.
It always surprises me that Zeller began writing as a novelist; he seems to think so thoroughly in 3D. In the English of his longtime translator Christopher Hampton, his dialogue glides without knots, while the action is everywhere fractured. Unforgettably, in The Father, his play about dementia, which Zeller has just filmed with Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins, the stage was rearranged from scene to scene so that the audience felt as if their own brain were being dismantled.
In Michael Longhurst’s fine production of The Son the long walls of Lizzie Clachan’s design crack open as Nicolas, the young man at the centre, is engulfed by depression. Zeller has talked of The Son as being “directly connected” to his own experience, saying that it does not belong with the more oblique plays he refers to as “labyrinths”. The subject matter is labyrinthine enough, particularly as treated here, where none of the reasons for distress are explanations of despair. His parents divorce; his father is doggedly practical and pushing, trying to compensate for his own father’s lack of attention (this play has more than one son), but this hopelessness is not susceptible to reason. Laurie Kynaston gives an extraordinary performance as the boy, his face both opened up and sluggishly shut down: both drained and magnetic.
Bartholomew Fair reads juicily. It’s a salvo against Shakespeare: urban, jostling, unreflective, crammed with cartoon-like figures, most of them on the make. Ever since I learned a speech by Ursula the Pig Woman when I was 15, I’ve looked out for productions of Ben Jonson’s whopping 1614 play. There are not many.
Blanche McIntyre has long wanted to direct it, and in this modern-dress production her eagerness to meld 21st- and 17th-century raucousness and rascals is apparent. But it’s hard to bring off – it is the longest play written for the Renaissance stage; it has a huge cast; the contorted plot is not easy to follow – and this is a misfire.
This huge comedy about London belongs in a big space, where people can wander and perch and swarm, and where the confusion of disguise becomes part of losing yourself in a crowd. Cramped into the small Sam Wanamaker, with a cast continually doubling, all this becomes perplexing – and remorselessly bouncy. Red trousers. The puritan, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (the names don’t move easily across the centuries) turned into a pin-striped evangelist. Feet slammed down on the boards. Over-vigorous accents. The normally sober and candlelit theatre blazing with artificial lights and lined with mirrors. We are, I suppose, meant to see ourselves there as part of the action: but I was estranged.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Son ★★★★
Bartholomew Fair ★★
• Hansard is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until 25 November
• The Son is at the Duke of York’s, London, until 2 November
• Bartholomew Fair is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 12 October
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