The Height Of The Storm
Wyndham’s Theatre, London ★★★★✩
IT’S unusual during a short pause in a play for an audience to audibly question each other about what they have just seen. Such is the spell cast by this new piece from Florian Zeller, whose last big hit was The Father, about an elderly widower, André, lost in dementia, and who here offers a purposeful variation on that drama’s themes by depicting an elderly widower, André, (Jonathan Pryce), lost in dementia.
Except, hang on: his adored wife Madeleine seems not to be dead at all but, as played by Eileen Atkins, briskly alive. Suddenly André’s two daughters, ostensibly in the sumptuous, book-lined family house to help him get his affairs in order, have switched from consoling their father in his grief to consoling their mother in hers. She is now apparently the widowed one.
Except, hang on: a bemused André is now back centre stage, wondering why his absent wife is taking so long picking onions in the garden. In which case, who is the woman Madeleine has invited into the house who claims to know André, who might even had had an affair with him?
Bewildered? That’s the point of Zeller’s play, which offers competing versions of one couple’s story in ways that make it pretty much impossible to establish which are real and which are manifestations of fear, confusion or desire.
He’s helped no end in Jonathan Kent’s exacting production by a formidable performance from Pryce who in every imploring facial expression conveys the terror of someone utterly unmoored. I had doubts about a play so dependent on an artful narrative slipperiness, but they are quelled by Pryce, who finds huge emotional traction in the existential crisis of old age in which all certainties have been erased.